• September 1, 2015

Faux Friendship

The New Friendship 2

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Achilles binding his friend Patroclus’ wounds

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Achilles binding his friend Patroclus’ wounds

William Deresiewicz discusses the shaky future of friendship on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth Wednesday, December 16 at 12:40 p.m. Listen to the episode here.

"…[a] numberless multitude of people, of whom no one was close, no one was distant. …"
War and Peace

"Families are gone, and friends are going the same way."
—In Treatment

We live at a time when friendship has become both all and nothing at all. Already the characteristically modern relationship, it has in recent decades become the universal one: the form of connection in terms of which all others are understood, against which they are all measured, into which they have all dissolved. Romantic partners refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Spouses boast that they are each other's best friends. Parents urge their young children and beg their teenage ones to think of them as friends. Adult siblings, released from competition for parental resources that in traditional society made them anything but friends (think of Jacob and Esau), now treat one another in exactly those terms. Teachers, clergymen, and even bosses seek to mitigate and legitimate their authority by asking those they oversee to regard them as friends. We're all on a first-name basis, and when we vote for president, we ask ourselves whom we'd rather have a beer with. As the anthropologist Robert Brain has put it, we're friends with everyone now.

Yet what, in our brave new mediated world, is friendship becoming? The Facebook phenomenon, so sudden and forceful a distortion of social space, needs little elaboration. Having been relegated to our screens, are our friendships now anything more than a form of distraction? When they've shrunk to the size of a wall post, do they retain any content? If we have 768 "friends," in what sense do we have any? Facebook isn't the whole of contemporary friendship, but it sure looks a lot like its future. Yet Facebook—and MySpace, and Twitter, and whatever we're stampeding for next—are just the latest stages of a long attenuation. They've accelerated the fragmentation of consciousness, but they didn't initiate it. They have reified the idea of universal friendship, but they didn't invent it. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone. We may pride ourselves today on our aptitude for friendship—friends, after all, are the only people we have left—but it's not clear that we still even know what it means.

How did we come to this pass? The idea of friendship in ancient times could not have been more different. Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Virgil's Nisus and Euryalus: Far from being ordinary and universal, friendship, for the ancients, was rare, precious, and hard-won. In a world ordered by relations of kin and kingdom, its elective affinities were exceptional, even subversive, cutting across established lines of allegiance. David loved Jonathan despite the enmity of Saul; Achilles' bond with Patroclus outweighed his loyalty to the Greek cause. Friendship was a high calling, demanding extraordinary qualities of character—rooted in virtue, for Aristotle and Cicero, and dedicated to the pursuit of goodness and truth. And because it was seen as superior to marriage and at least equal in value to sexual love, its expression often reached an erotic intensity. Jonathan's love, David sang, "was more wondrous to me than the love of women." Achilles and Patroclus were not lovers—the men shared a tent, but they shared their beds with concubines—they were something greater. Achilles refused to live without his friend, just as Nisus died to avenge Euryalus, and Damon offered himself in place of Pythias.

The rise of Christianity put the classical ideal in eclipse. Christian thought discouraged intense personal bonds, for the heart should be turned to God. Within monastic communities, particular attachments were seen as threats to group cohesion. In medieval society, friendship entailed specific expectations and obligations, often formalized in oaths. Lords and vassals employed the language of friendship. "Standing surety"—guaranteeing a loan, as in The Merchant of Venice—was a chief institution of early modern friendship. Godparenthood functioned in Roman Catholic society (and, in many places, still functions) as a form of alliance between families, a relationship not between godparent and godchild, but godparent and parent. In medieval England, godparents were "godsibs"; in Latin America, they are "compadres," co-fathers, a word we have taken as synonymous with friendship itself.

The classical notion of friendship was revived, along with other ancient modes of feeling, by the Renaissance. Truth and virtue, again, above all: "Those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship," wrote Montaigne, "for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him." His bond with Étienne, he avowed, stood higher not only than marriage and erotic attachment, but also than filial, fraternal, and homosexual love. "So many coincidences are needed to build up such a friendship, that it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries." The highly structured and, as it were, economic nature of medieval friendship explains why true friendship was held to be so rare in classical and neoclassical thought: precisely because relations in traditional societies were dominated by interest. Thus the "true friend" stood against the self-interested "flatterer" or "false friend," as Shakespeare sets Horatio—"more an antique Roman than a Dane"—against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Sancho Panza begins as Don Quixote's dependent and ends as his friend; by the close of their journey, he has come to understand that friendship itself has become the reward he was always seeking.

Classical friendship, now called romantic friendship, persisted through the 18th and 19th centuries, giving us the great friendships of Goethe and Schiller, Byron and Shelley, Emerson and Thoreau. Words­worth addressed his magnum opus to his "dear Friend" Coleridge. Tennyson lamented Hallam—"My friend … My Arthur … Dear as the mother to the son"—in the poem that became his masterpiece. Speaking of his first encounter with Hawthorne, Melville was unashamed to write that "a man of deep and noble nature has seized me." But meanwhile, the growth of commercial society was shifting the very grounds of personal life toward the conditions essential for the emergence of modern friendship. Capitalism, said Hume and Smith, by making economic relations impersonal, allowed for private relationships based on nothing other than affection and affinity. We don't know the people who make the things we buy and don't need to know the people who sell them. The ones we do know—neighbors, fellow parishioners, people we knew in high school or college, parents of our children's friends—have no bearing on our economic life. One teaches at a school in the suburbs, another works for a business across town, a third lives on the opposite side of the country. We are nothing to one another but what we choose to become, and we can unbecome it whenever we want.

Add to this the growth of democracy, an ideology of universal equality and inter-involvement. We are citizens now, not subjects, bound together directly rather than through allegiance to a monarch. But what is to bind us emotionally, make us something more than an aggregate of political monads? One answer was nationalism, but another grew out of the 18th-century notion of social sympathy: friendship, or at least, friendliness, as the affective substructure of modern society. It is no accident that "fraternity" made a third with liberty and equality as the watchwords of the French Revolution. Wordsworth in Britain and Whitman in America made visions of universal friendship central to their democratic vistas. For Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, friendship was to be the key term of a renegotiated sexual contract, a new domestic democracy.

Now we can see why friendship has become the characteristically modern relationship. Modernity believes in equality, and friendships, unlike traditional relationships, are egalitarian. Modernity believes in individualism. Friendships serve no public purpose and exist independent of all other bonds. Modernity believes in choice. Friendships, unlike blood ties, are elective; indeed, the rise of friendship coincided with the shift away from arranged marriage. Modernity believes in self-expression. Friends, because we choose them, give us back an image of ourselves. Modernity believes in freedom. Even modern marriage entails contractual obligations, but friendship involves no fixed commitments. The modern temper runs toward unrestricted fluidity and flexibility, the endless play of possibility, and so is perfectly suited to the informal, improvisational nature of friendship. We can be friends with whomever we want, however we want, for as long as we want.

Social changes play into the question as well. As industrialization uprooted people from extended families and traditional communities and packed them into urban centers, friendship emerged to salve the anonymity and rootlessness of modern life. The process is virtually instinctive now: You graduate from college, move to New York or L.A., and assemble the gang that takes you through your 20s. Only it's not just your 20s anymore. The transformations of family life over the last few decades have made friendship more important still. Between the rise of divorce and the growth of single parenthood, adults in contemporary households often no longer have spouses, let alone a traditional extended family, to turn to for support. Children, let loose by the weakening of parental authority and supervision, spin out of orbit at ever-earlier ages. Both look to friends to replace the older structures. Friends may be "the family we choose," as the modern proverb has it, but for many of us there is no choice but to make our friends our family, since our other families—the ones we come from or the ones we try to start—have fallen apart. When all the marriages are over, friends are the people we come back to. And even those who grow up in a stable family and end up creating another one pass more and more time between the two. We have yet to find a satisfactory name for that period of life, now typically a decade but often a great deal longer, between the end of adolescence and the making of definitive life choices. But the one thing we know is that friendship is absolutely central to it.

Inevitably, the classical ideal has faded. The image of the one true friend, a soul mate rare to find but dearly beloved, has completely disappeared from our culture. We have our better or lesser friends, even our best friends, but no one in a very long time has talked about friendship the way Montaigne and Tennyson did. That glib neologism "bff," which plays at a lifelong avowal, bespeaks an ironic awareness of the mobility of our connections: Best friends forever may not be on speaking terms by this time next month. We save our fiercest energies for sex. Indeed, between the rise of Freudianism and the contemporaneous emergence of homosexuality to social visibility, we've taught ourselves to shun expressions of intense affection between friends—male friends in particular, though even Oprah was forced to defend her relationship with her closest friend—and have rewritten historical friendships, like Achilles' with Patroclus, as sexual. For all the talk of "bromance" lately (or "man dates"), the term is yet another device to manage the sexual anxiety kicked up by straight-male friendships—whether in the friends themselves or in the people around them—and the typical bromance plot instructs the callow bonds of youth to give way to mature heterosexual relationships. At best, intense friendships are something we're expected to grow out of.

As for the moral content of classical friendship, its commitment to virtue and mutual improvement, that, too, has been lost. We have ceased to believe that a friend's highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction. We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support—"therapeutic" friendship, in Robert N. Bellah's scornful term. We seem to be terribly fragile now. A friend fulfills her duty, we suppose, by taking our side—validating our feelings, supporting our decisions, helping us to feel good about ourselves. We tell white lies, make excuses when a friend does something wrong, do what we can to keep the boat steady. We're busy people; we want our friendships fun and friction-free.

Yet even as friendship became universal and the classical ideal lost its force, a new kind of idealism arose, a new repository for some of friendship's deepest needs: the group friendship or friendship circle. Companies of superior spirits go back at least as far as Pythagoras and Plato and achieved new importance in the salons and coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the Romantic age gave them a fresh impetus and emphasis. The idea of friendship became central to their self-conception, whether in Words­worth's circle or the "small band of true friends" who witness Emma's marriage in Austen. And the notion of superiority acquired a utopian cast, so that the circle was seen—not least because of its very emphasis on friendship—as the harbinger of a more advanced age. The same was true, a century later, of the Bloomsbury Group, two of whose members, Woolf and Forster, produced novel upon novel about friendship. It was the latter who famously enunciated the group's political creed. "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend," he wrote, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Modernism was the great age of the coterie, and like the legendary friendships of antiquity, modernist friendship circles—bohemian, artistic, transgressive—set their face against existing structures and norms. Friendship becomes, on this account, a kind of alternative society, a refuge from the values of the larger, fallen world.

The belief that the most significant part of an individual's emotional life properly takes place not within the family but within a group of friends began to expand beyond the artistic coterie and become general during the last half of the 20th century. The Romantic-Bloomsburyan prophecy of society as a set of friendship circles was, to a great extent, realized. Mary McCarthy offered an early and tart view of the desirability of such a situation in The Group; Barry Levinson, a later, kinder one in Diner. Both works remind us that the ubiquity of group friendship owes a great deal to the rise of youth culture. Indeed, modernity associates friendship itself with youth, a time of life it likewise regards as standing apart from false adult values. "The dear peculiar bond of youth," Byron called friendship, inverting the classical belief that its true practice demands maturity and wisdom. With modernity's elevation of youth to supreme status as the most vital and authentic period of life, friendship became the object of intense emotion in two contradictory but often simultaneous directions. We have sought to prolong youth indefinitely by holding fast to our youthful friendships, and we have mourned the loss of youth through an unremitting nostalgia for those friendships. One of the most striking things about the way the 20th century understood friendship was the tendency to view it through the filter of memory, as if it could be recognized only after its loss, and as if that loss were inevitable.

The culture of group friendship reached its apogee in the 1960s. Two of the counterculture's most salient and ideologically charged social forms were the commune—a community of friends in self-imagined retreat from a heartlessly corporatized society—and the rock'n'roll "band" (not "group" or "combo"), its name evoking Shakespeare's "band of brothers" and Robin Hood's band of Merry Men, its great exemplar the Beatles. Communes, bands, and other 60s friendship groups (including Woodstock, the apotheosis of both the commune and the rock concert) were celebrated as joyous, creative places of eternal youth—havens from the adult world. To go through life within one was the era's utopian dream; it is no wonder the Beatles' break-up was received as a generational tragedy. It is also no wonder that 60s group friendship began to generate its own nostalgia as the baby boom began to hit its 30s. The Big Chill, in 1983, depicted boomers attempting to recapture the magic of a late-60s friendship circle. ("In a cold world," the movie's tagline reads, "you need your friends to keep you warm.") Thirtysomething, taking a step further, certified group friendship as the new adult norm. Most of the characters in those productions, though, were married. It was only in the 1990s that a new generation, remaining single well past 30, found its own images of group friendship in Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and, of course, Friends. By that point, however, the notion of friendship as a redoubt of moral resistance, a shelter from normative pressures and incubator of social ideals, had disappeared. Your friends didn't shield you from the mainstream, they were the mainstream.

And so we return to Facebook. With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook's very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they're not in the same place, or, rather, they're not my friends. They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

I remember realizing a few years ago that most of the members of what I thought of as my "circle" didn't actually know one another. One I'd met in graduate school, another at a job, one in Boston, another in Brooklyn, one lived in Minneapolis now, another in Israel, so that I was ultimately able to enumerate some 14 people, none of whom had ever met any of the others. To imagine that they added up to a circle, an embracing and encircling structure, was a belief, I realized, that violated the laws of feeling as well as geometry. They were a set of points, and I was wandering somewhere among them. Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. "It's like they're all having a conversation," a woman I know once said about her Facebook page, full of posts and comments from friends and friends of friends. "Except they're not."

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish "community" and the medical "community" and the "community" of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we're lucky, a "sense" of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have "friends," just as we belong to "communities." Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a "sense" of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.

What purpose do all those wall posts and status updates serve? On the first beautiful weekend of spring this year, a friend posted this update from Central Park: "[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City." The first question that comes to mind is, if you're enjoying a beautiful day in the park, why don't you give your iPhone a rest? But the more important one is, why did you need to tell us that? We have always shared our little private observations and moments of feeling—it's part of what friendship's about, part of the way we remain present in one another's lives—but things are different now. Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group, later, in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy. "Reach out and touch someone" meant someone in particular, someone you were actually thinking about. It meant having a conversation. Now we're just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven't just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

It's amazing how fast things have changed. Not only don't we have Wordsworth and Coleridge anymore, we don't even have Jerry and George. Today, Ross and Chandler would be writing on each other's walls. Carrie and the girls would be posting status updates, and if they did manage to find the time for lunch, they'd be too busy checking their BlackBerrys to have a real conversation. Sex and Friends went off the air just five years ago, and already we live in a different world. Friendship (like activism) has been smoothly integrated into our new electronic lifestyles. We're too busy to spare our friends more time than it takes to send a text. We're too busy, sending texts. And what happens when we do find the time to get together? I asked a woman I know whether her teenage daughters and their friends still have the kind of intense friendships that kids once did. Yes, she said, but they go about them differently. They still stay up talking in their rooms, but they're also online with three other friends, and texting with another three. Video chatting is more intimate, in theory, than speaking on the phone, but not if you're doing it with four people at once. And teenagers are just an early version of the rest of us. A study found that one American in four reported having no close confidants, up from one in 10 in 1985. The figures date from 2004, and there's little doubt that Facebook and texting and all the rest of it have already exacerbated the situation. The more people we know, the lonelier we get.

The new group friendship, already vitiated itself, is cannibalizing our individual friendships as the boundaries between the two blur. The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public. "hola cutie-pie! i'm in town on wednesday. lunch?" "Julie, I'm so glad we're back in touch. xoxox." "Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now." Have these people forgotten how to use e-mail, or do they actually prefer to stage the emotional equivalent of a public grope? I can understand "[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City," but I am incapable of comprehending this kind of exhibitionism. Perhaps I need to surrender the idea that the value of friendship lies precisely in the space of privacy it creates: not the secrets that two people exchange so much as the unique and inviolate world they build up between them, the spider web of shared discovery they spin out, slowly and carefully, together. There's something faintly obscene about performing that intimacy in front of everyone you know, as if its real purpose were to show what a deep person you are. Are we really so hungry for validation? So desperate to prove we have friends?

But surely Facebook has its benefits. Long-lost friends can reconnect, far-flung ones can stay in touch. I wonder, though. Having recently moved across the country, I thought that Facebook would help me feel connected to the friends I'd left behind. But now I find the opposite is true. Reading about the mundane details of their lives, a steady stream of trivia and ephemera, leaves me feeling both empty and unpleasantly full, as if I had just binged on junk food, and precisely because it reminds me of the real sustenance, the real knowledge, we exchange by e-mail or phone or face-to-face. And the whole theatrical quality of the business, the sense that my friends are doing their best to impersonate themselves, only makes it worse. The person I read about, I cannot help feeling, is not quite the person I know.

As for getting back in touch with old friends—yes, when they're people you really love, it's a miracle. But most of the time, they're not. They're someone you knew for a summer in camp, or a midlevel friend from high school. They don't matter to you as individuals anymore, certainly not the individuals they are now, they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life, in conjunction with all the other people you knew. Tear them out of that texture—read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation—and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity. Your 18-year-old self knows them. Your 40-year-old self should not know them.

Facebook holds out a utopian possibility: What once was lost will now be found. But the heaven of the past is a promised land destroyed in the reaching. Facebook, here, becomes the anti-madeleine, an eraser of memory. Carlton Fisk has remarked that he's watched the videotape of his famous World Series home run only a few times, lest it overwrite his own recollection of the event. Proust knew that memory is a skittish creature that peeks from its hole only when it isn't being sought. Mementos, snapshots, reunions, and now this—all of them modes of amnesia, foes of true remembering. The past should stay in the heart, where it belongs.

Finally, the new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or "25 Random Things About Me" can tell us more about someone than even a good friend might be aware of is based on desiccated notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional—an idea both peculiarly American and peculiarly young, perhaps because both types of people tend to travel among strangers, and so believe in the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade. Third, that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences. Forget that we're all conducting market research on ourselves. Far worse is that Facebook amplifies our longstanding tendency to see ourselves ("I'm a Skin Bracer man!") in just those terms. We wear T-shirts that proclaim our brand loyalty, pique ourselves on owning a Mac, and now put up lists of our favorite songs. "15 movies in 15 minutes. Rule: Don't take too long to think about it."

So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. But when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one's emotional generosity, that one's moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they've done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative. In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.

But that is precisely what the Facebook page does not leave room for, or 500 friends, time for. Literally does not leave room for. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette and scrolling format, already trimmed the letter down to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps a thousand words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving perhaps a third of that length as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation. Each evolved as a space for telling stories, an act that cannot usefully be accomplished in much less. Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition. Exchanging stories is like making love: probing, questing, questioning, caressing. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill—and it teaches them all, too.

They call them social-networking sites for a reason. Networking once meant something specific: climbing the jungle gym of professional contacts in order to advance your career. The truth is that Hume and Smith were not completely right. Commercial society did not eliminate the self-interested aspects of making friends and influencing people, it just changed the way we went about it. Now, in the age of the entrepreneurial self, even our closest relationships are being pressed onto this template. A recent book on the sociology of modern science describes a networking event at a West Coast university: "There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly." No solitude, no friendship, no space for refusal—the exact contemporary paradigm. At the same time, the author assures us, "face time" is valued in this "community" as a "high-bandwidth interaction," offering "unusual capacity for interruption, repair, feedback and learning." Actual human contact, rendered "unusual" and weighed by the values of a systems engineer. We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines. The face of friendship in the new century.

William Deresiewicz writes essays and reviews for a variety of publications. His essay, "The End of Solitude," ran in the Review in January.


1. isugeezer - December 07, 2009 at 08:48 am

My first instinct was to email this article to three or four "close friends," but, instead, I'm going to prove to myself just how close I feel to them by handwriting a letter to each and enclosing a copy of this. Thank you for beautifully articulating just what's wrong with electronic "friendship."

2. curtisrt - December 07, 2009 at 10:17 am

Thank you!!! I have been expressing this sentiment for a few years now. I, too, will be sending copies to everyone!

3. tridaddy - December 07, 2009 at 10:18 am

Finally, someone has stated what I have tried to express to my family in regard to their Facebook connections. The need to scan Facebook entries of so-called friends is a sort of electronic voyeurism. The posts seem to be streams of consciousness rather than real conversations. And, by the way, when was the last time anyone had a truly meaningful face-to-face conversation with a friend. This brave new world electron world actually scares me and causes me pause when I consider what the electronic geekers are calling a friendship or aka a relationship. Hey, maybe our next great philosopher will come from Facebook.

4. fast_and_bulbous - December 07, 2009 at 10:28 am

God that article could have been reduced by 50% and still been too long. Or was that your point?

A truth I think the author is missing is this: As we get older, it becomes more difficult to make new friends. Our lives become smaller, and as we move around we end up losing the old friends. These social networks have the advantage of keeping people who we would normally have let fade into the past into the present. Which, as he states, has its upsides and downsides. Remember, "de-friending" takes only a few clicks.

"Kids these days" are just like we were, only with new technologies we never dreamed of. Believe me, youth are going through the same interpersonal issues they always have. All this clicky typey texty cell phoney facebooky stuff is just an extension of their normally tumultuous lives and nothing more than an annoyance to those of us who think doing this in certain public situations (e.g., musical events, speeches, lectures, etc.) is just plain rude. The next generation will have real-time virtual reality headsets and then people will be waxing sentimental for the days when we only had words and still pictures.

Does anyone *really* mistake a real friend from a facebook "friend?" C'mon.

5. sahara - December 07, 2009 at 10:41 am

This is a beautifully stated article. Thanks for stating what's obvious to those of us who worked and succeeded on the basis of truly personal relationships, before the phenomenon of "social networking." PS: I'm 53.

Putting your photo, personal information, and stream of consciousness out there for the masses to peruse is more than "faintly obscene" --it's the ultimate in narcissism to think that people have nothing better to do with their time than to read about where you're walking, what you're eating, whether you read the newspaper that day, and even worse drivel.

The Big Marketing Machine has sold folks a dream...while you think you're being connected in a meaningful way, they're just collecting personal data they'll use to sell you stuff you didn't need, didn't want, and couldn't afford in the first place.

Remember the novel 1984? Big Brother is not only watching, he's recording your every move [on your cell phone], your every purchase [on your debit card], and your every motivation, assuming you have one [on your Facebook page or Twitter account].
No, I'm not paranoid, just realistic.

What I really have to wonder is: is anyone actually doing any work out there? Because if all these people are on Facebook and Twitter, then nobody's actually working for their employer...or pursuing the really important long-term strategic work of our society.

6. saswriter - December 07, 2009 at 10:45 am

William, thank you for analyzing this issue so thoroughly. Like everyone else, I agree that you have put into words what has been bugging me for so long about interpersonal communications and "friendship" these days. This clarifies for me why Facebook is easy and why my relationships with real friends--the friends I see every day--are always more complicated and often more difficult.
True friendship shouldn't be easy; it requires real communication, compromise and sacrifice.
Yet, as we all know, it is well worth it.

7. legalaffairs - December 07, 2009 at 10:47 am

A great analysis of the notion of 'electronic' friendship. I have numerous friends who need to read this essay.

8. randomacademic - December 07, 2009 at 10:57 am

Deresiewicz makes some reasonable points here, and seems right about the decline of the classical ideal. Does he really think, however, that the murky intersections of private and public, acquaintance and friend, didn't have performative and voyeuristic elements in ancient and medieval times?

New technologies have yet again forced us to recalibrate and reimagine our settled understandings of such terms as "friendship", "intimacy", "civility", and "publicity". Once again we muddle through, with inevitable missteps and gaffes. Of course there is something lost in the process, but there are also possibilities, and in my experience, some of them have been profoundly enriching.

My experience: for the most part I've managed to avoid the awkward "reconnections" with fragments of my past, and even when I've stumbled into these, I've found something worthwhile in virtually meeting (however briefly and superficially) these strangers who were once in my life in some way. I have also managed to "reconnect" with many people from my past, and some from my present, who make me a more thoughtful person and a better scholar. In an earlier age this would have required an unlikely string of coincidences. Now, a new space of possibilities to explore. Maybe I'll add Deresiewicz and he can explore it with me and my "friends" ...

9. ghhllc - December 07, 2009 at 11:19 am

This article poetically expressed many of the frustrations I have experienced in trying to resist being sucked into sea of online social networking . While everything was well stated I truly wish the author had shortened the article enough so that I could actually have posted a link on facebook and other places so all my friends, family, and colleagues could benefit from the wisdom expressed. I find that as much as I would prefer to send personal emails or video mails that my time is too limited to truly interact with all the people I really care about to the level of our mutual satisfaction. I consider myself fortunate to have friends in my life dating back to my preschool years. We actually managed to stay in touch and connected before all the FB type technology became all the rage. Now, I am a 40 year old woman with aging parents and toddlers. I have a business and do other things in my community. I have gone to the technology dark side because the people in my life are reaching out to me through that medium. I do it more for them than for any joy I could ever possible get about seeing my own pictures and status changes! The good news is you can actually limit your feeds and send personal messages on FB. This is one small method for trying to keep some genuine love in the sea of online nonsense.

10. sgadbois - December 07, 2009 at 11:29 am

If Tiger Woods had just few true friends who could have told him the truth he may not be in the predicament in which he currently finds himself.

11. demery1 - December 07, 2009 at 11:31 am

The flawed assumption is that face to face communication is necessarily "real" and meaningful. I give most folks credit to be able to distinguish between good friends, friends, and acquainternces, even if their facebook settings don't.

I would bet a million dollars that Mr. Deresiewicz does not have a deep, meaningful, genuine and lasting friendship with everyone he meets face to face each day, even some that he might call colleagues and friends. This reads like so much howling at the moon.

12. johntoradze - December 07, 2009 at 11:39 am

As someone who began his online life years before the web existed, I went through the disturbing revelation that people I was "friends" with online were useless rubbish over a decade ago. I wasted too many years on "The WELL" which is one of the places that acronyms like f2f originated.

I joined the WELL because of Rheingold's book. Many wasted years later I realized he absolute driveling useless of those multitudes on the WELL. I realized the lie that Rhiengold had perpetrated, a lie that kept his family fed but harmed the world deeply by its refusal to acknowledge what he himself knew. He knew, when he wrote his book "Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier" that the internet, electronic networking was a hole into the collective id pit.

Pioneer! Oh, Pioneers!
Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged, nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you, in your tracks to pause oblivious, Pioneers! O pioneers!

13. johntoradze - December 07, 2009 at 11:40 am

And I must say! That is one of the most long-winded paeans to longwindedness I have ever read. Dear me!

14. krossow - December 07, 2009 at 11:51 am

Your article states my thoughts very well also! I also felt, like some others, that I need to forward this along to people I know. I have instinctively avoided Facebook, etc. for the reasons you state. It would not fulfill any definition of friendship for me. I also feel that it's narcissistic and just plain sad. I don't make friendships very easily but I know a fake one when I see it.

15. latino - December 07, 2009 at 12:19 pm

love your ideas and knowledge but, well, if you can write this way so much i guess you do not have friends in facebook and you are not a huge twitter fan, dy?

i can also imagine your texting...

16. apino - December 07, 2009 at 01:58 pm

I enjoyed this article up to the standard-issue facebook-bashing. I suppose there are some damaged people who think a facebook wall post carries the same weight as a real interaction, but that's not the norm I've seen.

Facebook is a just a communication tool. It's the digital equivalent of walking through the office saying good morning to everyone, or letting your co-workers know you left donuts in the break room. It's nice. It's friendly. With friends and acquaintances so far-flung these days, it's not like you can knock on everyone's door or say hello as you pass their cottage on your way to an afternoon of working in the fields. We live in a far different world from that of Achilles.

Only a fool would think facebook and similar online networks are the alpha and omega of how people are interacting. Just because the Live Feed doesn't reflect our emails, phone calls and IRL visits with our special friends doesn't mean these things aren't happening.

17. rhadmanthys - December 07, 2009 at 02:09 pm

Excellent article! I loved the long-historical look at friendship. I posted this on my Facebook page--unfortunately I primarily use Facebook as a device to play board games with three family members, so not many superficial friends will see it and realize how shallow our relationships are. Perhaps I need to "Friend" some high school acquaintances...

18. jhengstler - December 07, 2009 at 02:26 pm

Hey, anyone up on the recent research on colllege/university students use of Facebook? It is used to augment, support and establish Face-to-face connections. Seems like a support of "real friendship" to me.
Some references on quick recall:
The Young & the Digital (Watkins, 2009)
The Benefits of Facebook "Friends" (Ellison, Steinfield, Lampe, 2007)

19. rlburns - December 07, 2009 at 02:40 pm

I don't agree with every point made here (by the author) but the topic is vital and the insights needed to be expressed. Too long? Maybe for some in a culture that is moving too quickly into 60 second lectures and tweets. But I will copy this, reread it, and share it--even the parts I don't accept altogether right now(e.g. that Christianity pushed friendship aside at some stage). For those also taken with the thoughts here, check out Stephen Ambrose's little volume on male friendship, written at the end of a career of examining the bonding relationships of soldiers in WWII and the special friendship between Lewis and Clark.

20. edbeimfohr - December 07, 2009 at 05:43 pm


21. laoshi - December 07, 2009 at 07:59 pm


22. mindyc123 - December 07, 2009 at 08:03 pm

FB is a nice electronic space for folks to meet who live states and sometimes countries apart. Am I "real friends" with everyone I "friend" on FB. Nope. Do I communicate with real friends that I meet face to face? Yep.

Am I also friends with family members whom I love with, including my husband? Sure enough.

I use FB as an interesting diversion from my work day, as a place to post interesting articles and arrange plans with friends (as I really loathe phones).

But I do still meet with my friends and family outside of FB for meals, entertainment and fun. I don't need philosophy to tell me the value of the internet or my friendships. I can figure that one out myself. ;)

23. gtkarn - December 07, 2009 at 08:03 pm

Readers might be intereted in Danielle Allens'TALKING TO STRANGERS which explores the idea of political friendship in a democracy -- the relationship between friendship and citizenship.

24. charlesfrith - December 07, 2009 at 08:03 pm

I don't know anything about Wordsworth and Coleridge, I'm sure they would make good pals but I do know my friend Zillah is in Switzerland having a fab time, Arunee from Bangkok seems to go on holiday more than I knew when I worked with her, that hot chick I met in Beijing is doing nicely in Shanghai, the woman I interviewed for my work here in Hong Kong, and quite like, I could leave my name to 'add' on Facebook which she did but would never have done with a binary decision of contact or don't contact with an email address or phone number.

I'm in touch with all my ex colleagues from JWT in London, everyone I met down the Breakfast Club and Interesting 2007 is constantly in touch and I had a couple of Skype calls with people whose blogs I read from London in the last few weeks just to catch up. I guess we like each other.

It's not about Facebook. It's about the socialisation of the digital mediated presence and that's a good thing. Sure, some think it's about volume but then they were like that before Facebook took off weren't they. Didn't we call them fair weather friends? Possibly superficial and definitely interested in style over substance. I've no doubt that the nature of friendship is changing but frankly the quality of my friendships is better these days and I don't recall any special friendships of note from the 20th century that really changed anything. Except that between the United States and Kingdom. I rest my case.

25. jjwhyte - December 07, 2009 at 08:10 pm

The author seems to suggest that people who communicate with eachother via Facebook do not have any relationship outside of that medium, as if they were somehow modern-day "pen-pals". Apino (comment #16) states this very clearly. I would also ask why the author considers it narcissistic to post your plans for the weekend on facebook, but to make the very same statement over coffee with a colleague, it is somehow a deeper, richer experience? On facebook, it is the (quote) "mundane details of their lives, a steady stream of trivia and ephemera", versus "the real sustenance, the real knowledge, we exchange by e-mail or phone or face-to-face". I almost laughed out loud at that statement considering some of faceless mass e-mails delivered across campus that are deleted without a second thought. Each communication medium can be used effectively or ineffectively. And as for the length of the article, the author would be wise to follow the maxim, "I would have written less if I had more time", variously attributed to Pascal, T.S. Eliot, and Samuel Clemens.

26. dryan659 - December 07, 2009 at 10:33 pm

While I don't totally disagree with your points, Friendship is in the eye of the beholder.

27. 11161452 - December 07, 2009 at 10:36 pm

I like this article almost as much as the author's "The End of Solitude" from last January's CHE. Any inveterate loner should look that one up. Mr. Deresiewicz enriches the pages of the Chronicle, and I hope he continues his most welcome contributions.

28. strefanash - December 08, 2009 at 05:55 am

A good article. Thankyou sir

By way of comparison:

I have known my best friend for over 25 years. but we are not "friends" on facebook: likewise with three other friends i have known for over 20 years.

I have only about 13 "friends" on facebook, but regard facebook as meaningless, and dont know why I bother continuing with it.AS to those who have 700 friends, they have forgotten the meaning of the word

Yes, indeed, friendship has been devalued when any kind of phatic non hostillity has been identified with it.

it is more personal, more real and more authentic to talk face to face or even over the telephone: the "friendships" over email are so fragile as to not be worth the name of friendship

29. strefanash - December 08, 2009 at 05:59 am

. . . . but it was a pity that the article was so long. However I suspect that the decline in the kind of patience and commitment that would take the effort to read something more substantial than the writen equivalent of a soundbite is another issue . . . . . .

30. citizenwhy - December 08, 2009 at 09:18 am

Here we go again with literal mindedness about "social" web sites.

Twitter has officially declared itself to be an information network, not a social network. Why? Because that's how people really use it. Twitter even changed the question from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" Not that anyone pays attention to the question. Please update your thinking.

I use only Twitter because I am interested in:

1. Information, including from media ll over the world. Very enlightening.

2. To hear a variety of "voices" form people of many countries. Outside the US these voices tend to be energetic and funny. US voices tend to be bland, often usefully bland, but bland. Except for a few comedians and MeetingBoy and S**tmyfathersays. As a writer listening to different voices, personalities helps.

3. To write notes to myself.

4. To create one or two off-kilter personas and have fun.

I do not care about how many people do or don't follow me. I am certainly not looking for friends. In fact I will not tell my friends how to find me on Twitter.

31. frankietx - December 08, 2009 at 10:32 am

A very interesting article on what friendship can be but when given the chance at the end of the article to "share" I shamelessly posted it to facebook - sorry. I do love facebook as a true social networking sight but that is all it really can be; A helpful tool for people who are far away, on-the-go or maybe just shy.

32. tribblek - December 08, 2009 at 11:55 am

Sorry... a bit of a rant...
I feel that some of these comments are missing the point. It's not about digital friends versus face-to-face friends... it's about quality. And quality takes time. It's about time. I'm embarrassed for those who claim the article is too verbose and overly long... slow the heck down, find a quiet place, improve your vocabulary, open your mind, and freakin' live your life! My wife has always said that a person can consider themselves lucky in their life if they end up with one good spouse and maybe two good friends. Seek honor and quality in all.

33. podbay - December 08, 2009 at 02:26 pm

An interesting and thought-provoking article, but way too long. As noted elsewhere, it could've been cut in half. To respond to tribblek, my vocabulary is fine, my mind is open, and I'm living my life fully at this time. That I find this article too verbose has nothing to do with the concerns you highlight above.

But what troubles me is that this is the latest in a series of polemics and essays bashing the social networking phenomenon, and offering no solutions or alternatives. Instead, we are told that "We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines." So what do we do about this? No options are offered.

I have >800 "friends" on Facebook. It's overwhelming, and given that I don't really know a lot of these people (some are students), I've chosen to hide them from my news feed. Others are people of varying levels of importance to me, and I like to know what they're up to on a daily basis. In a weird twist, Facebook posts have notified me of the deaths of many people in the past two years, whose passing I might not have heard of otherwise until much later.

The only constant in this expanding world is the number of hours in the day we have to process everything we do. My friendships remains solid, they have not devolved into something faceless and machine-driven.

Long before the existence of social networks, I always considered my main blessing in life to be my family and friends. Too many friends, perhaps. My activities on Facebook have allowed me to reconnect with friends - real friends, thank you - with whom I had lost contact, dating back to the 70s. I am VERY thankful for that. I am also thankful for some of the new relationships I have made as a result of FB actitiy. Last week I was in Boston, and met five "Boston FB friends" I'd made in the past few years. We had face time, compared notes, enjoyed live music, food and drink together.

But I also agree with tribblek - DO seek honour and quality in everything you do.

That is all...

34. cherdt - December 08, 2009 at 03:34 pm

I am surprised that no mention was made of the dramatic increase in college enrollments in the United States in the 20th century, and what effect that had on the nature of friendship. 4 (or more) years surrounded by peers, cut adrift from their families and hometown friends, must have had an enormous impact on the nature of friendship. That those friends are then bound to scatter after graduation might further affect our sense of the duration of friendship.

In that light, Facebook can be seen as a tool used to try to recapture--rather than obliterate--the old, the idealized permanence of friendship, previously enabled by our geographic stability. Family, friends, and careers were not always so mobile, and careers often take top-billing: perhaps this is why the distinction between family and friends is blurring.

Although the nature of friendship as depicted in literature (and television) presumably does resemble, to some extent, the nature of friendship of the age, I think it is a mistake to base such generalizations on such limited works of fiction. More demographic data and less 'Seinfeld,' if you please.

35. phd_angel - December 08, 2009 at 03:59 pm

All comments in this forum are "pornographic" because there is no real relationship here, just "streams of consciousness"...

Indeed, the essay could have been dramatically reduced. (Doesn't the author know online writing as a genre?...). Yet, exaggeration in style but also in substance.

Yes, people waste too much time in narcissistic trips online (I actually gave up my Facebook). But "friends are not really friends" anyways is an old saying. Problems with contemporary sociability are worsened by the Internet, not created by it.

Hey, after wasting much time socializing face-to-face in pubs, clubs and parties, I met my wife online! Isn't that wonderful?...

36. ldorland - December 09, 2009 at 04:41 am

Bleat bleat. The sheep who don't "get" social media and view everyone who does understand the affordances through a narrow slit. Facebook is a tool. Some use it wisely and well, some do not. Painting doom and gloom with such a broad brush does not make it so. So much chest-beating and finally-someone-understands-ing. Boring.

37. saurapols - December 09, 2009 at 05:13 am

It's true that this comment space is a reflection of the system the author is describing. Because of the fact that we're not encouraged to interact personally with the author, to share ideas and personal responses, our responses to him are actually exhibitionistic "twits" for everyone to see and think how smart we are.

W.D. did not, to my knowledge, imply that all other kinds of social/interpersonal interactions have been replaced by electronic ones. His point--which I consider valid--is that the intensity of our electronic activity/interactivity is coloring all of our other interactions, and that perhaps the entire range of friendship forms is moving away from small and interpersonal to expansive and "social". We end up believing that we need to cultivate some consistent social identity for ourselves, not realizing that we contain myriads of selves each defined by the person we come in relation and contrast with.

I'm not pessimistic about new media, forms of interactivity--I think it's interesting to see how we adapt ourselves to them. But I think essays like W.D.'s are necessary in order to cultivate a certain awareness of how these forms are generally influencing us.

38. mmmartinusa - December 09, 2009 at 08:37 am

If it had been labelled 'Spots' instead of 'Friends', then this author would argue that what we see in front of our eyes at times has evolved.
No. The function was simply tagged 'Friend' by someone unimpressed, uninterested and unconcerned with the value of words.
It has not changed the meaning of a friend - it is simply a hollow homonym...
Move on.

39. amnirov - December 09, 2009 at 09:02 am

Personally speaking, I don't want real friends. I don't like people all that much, I have very little empathy for anyone, and would be more than delighted if facebook acquaintances were the limit of my informal interactions with the rest of humanity. Why should I have to conform to some mostly fictional ideal--eg you realize, right, that David and Jonathan did not exist.

40. sher2824 - December 09, 2009 at 09:35 am

It doesn't have to be about f2f versus online friendship or even whether you can develop deeper friendships f2f versus online. The entire situation is much more complex than many of the comments and essay seem to assume. For example, Stefana Broadbent's research has shown that we only closely track 4-5 people online, and many times we connect online with those we cannot connect with f2f during our day. Why? We are social creatures, and increasing distance between where we live and where we work appear to impede our communing with others, while social networking technologies allow us to close that gap -- even if it is inadequate cmpared to the "real" thing. So rather than blaming social technologies as causes, are social technologies symptoms or remiedies?

See her TED Talk: "How the Internet Enables Intimacy" -- http://www.ted.com/talks/stefana_broadbent_how_the_internet_enables_intimacy.html

41. maerock - December 09, 2009 at 09:38 am

This article is wonderful. I've been contemplating deleting my facebook account for a while because I take issue with the paradigm shift it's created, and after reading your piece, I finally did. Thank you.

42. madamesmartypants - December 09, 2009 at 11:32 am

This article sounded like an old man pining after the ideals of youth and the fictional "golden age" of the past, and justifying those ideals by appealing to cultural relics that contemporary society has moved away from. Of course this piece is critical of the newfangled things kids are getting into nowadays--there is no acknowledgement here of contemporary culture as culture, just the argument that we are a culture in decline. I think the very fact that friendship is expressed differently nowadays, through new types of media, is evidence of a vibrant culture and of expanding, multifaceted, and often international networks and connections--a Silk Road of meetings and greetings, with Internet sites as entrepots.

43. reena79 - December 09, 2009 at 02:02 pm

I really enjoyed this article and I agree with some of it but as a regular FB user with real friends and FB friends who are regular FB users I disagree with some of it also.

I spend real time with real friends and real acquaintances regularly, or as regularly as possible given all of our conflicting schedules. FB and other social networking sites provide additional time for the silly things and for the little things just happen on your way to work or while you're shopping that you don't have the time to mention when you're trying to catch up on everything else in your face-to-face interactions. And sometimes we just need that moment to b.s. FB provides an opportunity to share photos with people who missed those experiences or maybe just want the pictures, and to briefly reminisce on those experiences even if it was just yesterday. FB provides some extra fun in our extremely busy lives.

We are all so busy as adults that it's difficult to find the time for regular phone calls or to write letters or plan activities together. FB fills the in-between time. In between each real meeting or real conversation.

And yes we probably should let go of some of those college friends or high school friends as we get older but in an age when networking is so important in finding a job or getting something else you want it doesn't hurt to maintain some form of communication, however impersonal and distant.

44. aldebaran - December 09, 2009 at 03:13 pm

@ podbay, # 33:

The measure of verbosity, to my mind, is whether the author rewards the time and effort required to read his words, as well as the extent to which the author makes each word count. By that measure, your own longish post is far more verbose than Deresiewicz's article.

@saurapols, # 37. Thank you. You appear to be one of the few commentators here who actually grasp Deresiewicz's main point.

@(the aptly named)madamesmartypants, #42

This post sounds as if it comes from an insecure college-aged youngster with severe intellectual status anxiety, or, worse, from a middle-aged female with hipster status anxiety, one who needs to prove that she's both intellectual AND "with it" (as well as eternally young)!

The post also sounds as if it emanates from that most modern human construct: The brainwashed pismire who worships everything that is new and shiny, who breezily dismisses anything with a patina, and who generally lives by the logical fallacy "post hoc, ergo melius hoc" ("after this, therefore, better than this").

Enjoy continuing to walk your "Silk Road" of digitally mediated social banality. Me, I am grateful for the Deresiewiczs of the world who eloquently question where such a road is leading us.

45. motherthing - December 09, 2009 at 04:56 pm

The idea that online social networking impairs or replaces face to face contact is like worrying that people won't use their refrigerators if they have freezers. The purposes are similar, but not identical. I send and receive ten page emails to people who are on my facebook page. We also go out and have face-to-face social time when we can and often have three hour conversations. I imagine most of us do.

46. jeromekeeler33 - December 09, 2009 at 05:37 pm

This is the latest version of an article that has already been written and re-written by about 10,000 depressive NPR loving grouch-hipsters. I used to be one of the living dead like you, Deresiewicz. It's not an evniable existence. Hope you can find a way past it.

47. zgma92 - December 09, 2009 at 08:54 pm

Everyone knows by now that real friends can only be found on Craigslist! Get with it, William.

48. carloyu0408 - December 09, 2009 at 11:16 pm

<Comment removed by moderator>

49. fdarnell - December 10, 2009 at 09:55 am

great points by all. i think i'll post this on FB to share with all my "friends."

50. scupterry - December 10, 2009 at 10:09 am

Geez, another person who thinks that on Facebook "friend" means friend.

51. pooleside - December 10, 2009 at 03:15 pm

In my deepest friendships I've seen in the other person someone, or elements of someone, that I long to be. And maybe we do become more like what we desire over time.

But we also learn that what we long for can have its negatives as well as its positives.

Friends can be proxies for us, living lives we could only dream of living. We get to share a bit.

I have no time for the made-up activities on FB, but I am on there, and I find that it is possible to experience things there.

I find it more bizzarre when commentors on certain blogs form themselves into groups of friends. There it's only the shared experience of reading each other's comments that forms the basis.

52. 22191530 - December 10, 2009 at 04:23 pm

"They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information..."

Sounds like "Single Serving Friends" to me. (Fight Club)

53. carolynecooper - December 10, 2009 at 05:52 pm

To paraphrase, the problem lies not in our social media, but in ourselves. The purpose of social media is discovery and social networking which has been proven to be critical in achieving success in our lives (however we define success). The author is confusing social media, i.e. networking, with "fandoms". The term "fandoms" identified a shared interest among science fiction fans and is an apt description of our areas of interest. True friends meet through a shared interest.

If we look closely our circle of actual friends created by our fandoms, the "true" or lasting friendships are the ones who remain even after we've left the fandom. In several cases, my strongest friendships are with people I originally met online via a fandom (literature, sports, backpacking, whatever) and then later met in person when we connected over some activity related to the fandom.

So how we make the connection is not as important as the depth of the connection and a strong friendship, like a strong marriage, requires both desire and effort through the years. This has not changed whether the friendship is maintained through letters or private Tweets.

54. 100percentlady - December 11, 2009 at 09:44 am

This is a wonderful article and I find it funny that people seem more upset by its length than its content. Have we become such dullards that we can no longer concentrate on more than two lines of text without tantrum-texting for an editor?
Concentration, responsibility, interest in the other--(okay you're probably all asleep now), but these are the new world's greatest foes.
Along with texting, anything beginning with "i" (and ending in phone or pod), twitter and hourly personal updates to 500 "facebook friends" at a time.
No-one is that fascinating. And surely no-one needs that amount of recognition.
Do they?

55. rebel40 - December 11, 2009 at 07:26 pm

Haven't had a chance to read all of the comments but I'll comment anyway and hope it isn't redundant. I'm 69 and have been happily married to the same woman (yes, my best friend) for 48 years. When I was in high school, I was not in the "In Group" and probably helped invent "nerd". I did have one or two friends who happened to be female but there was no romantic involvemnet. Of course, peer teasing often precluded any such friendships, but I thought that was a real shame. I had hoped that the situation would change by the time that my kids (now 41 and 39) were in high school but my daughter said that was not the case.
I did have one female friend as an adult (once again, nothing romantic). We met as colleagues and had career tracks that were both divergent and convergent. Our spouses are also friends but not as "good a friend" as we are. Geographic speparation has diminished our interaction (often lunch together including with the "old group") but we're still friends.
I recently regained contact with my high school freind; we hadn't seen each other since graduating from high school. We may become e-mail friends but that's probably it.
I have valued my rare opposite sex freindships and I hope they have too. Contrary to the cynics, I really think one can have those friendships without getting romantically involved and derailing one's life. Any discussion?

56. 22154045 - December 12, 2009 at 10:14 am

Funny -- it didn't seem long at all when I read it in print. But I gave up on the online version!

Did people see the Seinfeld remake on Curb Your Enthusiasm this fall? Jerry's talking about something to Elaine, and she whips out her phone and starts checking her messages. Jerry complains, "You're not one of -those- people, are you?" Elaine's like "What's the problem?"

It's amazing how much F2F social interaction norms have changed in just a few years.

57. polispeak - December 13, 2009 at 10:24 am

Thanks for explaining why I de-activated my facebook account a couple of weeks ago. the most annoying thing about facebook is that they suggest you be friends with all the friends of any friend who might be your friend.

Check out Gil Meilander's book: Friendship (1981, I think). One of the best books I have ever read.

58. kgodwin - December 14, 2009 at 11:56 am

I've often wished I could have lived in a time when I could have lived my entire life within a 10 mi radius of my home. Folks in my family are very family centered - we want to know all of those little details we know about people we live with. Unfortunately, we can't all live together in one house, or even on one street, or in one city. Our jobs have flung us far apart - my sister and her young family in Alaska, myself and my parents in Washington state, my cousins in Oregon, California and Idaho. Facebook is a way that we can communicate those neat little details about each other and our children that we would know if we lived together - what funny little thing my neice said the other day, what happened during my brother-in-law's day. These are things we'd talk about around the dinner table when we had dinner together. They're not meaningless, self-absorbed drivel. In face, a lack of this desire to share things with others is pathalogical - a characteristic of autism and Asperger's syndrome.

Additionally, I have long considered email and other eCommunication to be a good adaptive tool for people with social disorders like autism and Asperger's. Facebook, email and the like are a form of communication devoid of the very behavior that they have trouble utilizing - tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. It really levels the playing field in that respect, just as written letters did before email. For folks who have trouble understanding the nuances of face-to-face interaction, eCommunication makes connection possible.

59. zlewis - December 14, 2009 at 02:29 pm

I enjoyed this post..for about two minutes. Then, my short attention span caused me to check my email.

60. paperstreet - December 14, 2009 at 05:25 pm

I enjoyed this article greatly, It was a pleasure to read. Please accept my facebook friend request. Thanks.

61. 11188926 - December 15, 2009 at 02:37 pm

very insightful - should be required reading for anyone using these electronic networking programs; and for undergraduates who seemingly can't spend one class hour without rushing to check various electronic message systems- they really must be either soo important or soo lonely the "world turns" all around them - they wish!!

Thanks for the article

62. hcarh001 - December 15, 2009 at 03:20 pm

As much as I liked the commentary on historical friendship, I was disappointed when this article turned into yet another rant about Facebook. Certainly the concept of friendship has changed throughout history and is changing once again. Why would someone attribute those changes in the 18th and 19th centuries to larger forces of politics, economics, and social changes like feminism, and yet attribute changes in the 21st century to something as simplistic as Facebook?

Where is the economic and social analysis for today? In other words, social networking is as much a result of larger forces as a technological determinant of changing concepts about relationships. Facebook is not causing a destruction of older ideas about friendship, so much as reflecting an American lifestyle that pressures us and our children to over-schedule, over-buy, overly desire celebrity, and overly fear privacy and solitude. A capitalist economy that values working and buying as much as possible for everyone, so continual economic growth is possible should take some responsibility. The anxiety that comes from that economy falling on the losing side of globalized competition doesn't allow for leisurely "10 page letters" any more. Sharing experiences and thoughts over Facebook doesn't destroy intimacy but adds to it in a way that makes sense in this particular time and culture for many people.

I've been able to see my grandson on Facebook the first day he lived, though he was all the way across the country. I've had memories with old friends from 50 years ago and seen the type of person they have become, again from across the country. I've learned that one relative, nicknamed the Sphinx, actually is quite funny and has quite an interesting personality when not overwhelmed by family occasions. Intimacy can be created in many ways and on many different levels. Mundane details are what add up to our lives and people are doing the best they can.

Reading Facebook takes a different kind of response than friends in real life or even in email. You skim other's updates and comment when something strikes you. It doesn't matter if you miss days or weeks of it. You can organize circles of people into separate areas of family or work. The point is that the information is one-sided until you choose to make it two-sided. There isn't any pressure. Given the amount of other pressures in most people's lives, that is a plus. For many of the people I know on Facebook, this is just an addition to their lives; a little extra information, not their only relationship activity. Let's look at the larger economic, political, and social causes of our popular culture and technology and see how those forces interact with technology rather than just rant the usual dystopian, technological rant.

63. thamus - December 20, 2009 at 04:37 am

A friend in need (of Facebook updates) is a friend to be

64. myrtha - December 20, 2009 at 08:46 pm

With all due respect, I found this article extremely interesting, until I got to paragraph 1000 and saw that I was only 1/4 down the page. I'm going to do all my friends a favor by NOT sending it to them because (1) they will not feel obligated to read it; (2) nor will they feel bad that they have no time to read it; (3) without their knowing it, I have given them one less thing to do in our crazy busy age of more to do than there is time to do it. My apologies to those of you who have enough time to read and savor this. In many ways, I envy you.

65. myrtha - December 20, 2009 at 08:48 pm

Okay, my apologies again. I see that most of the page was taken up by comments. So I was actually almost done. Maybe now I'll go back and finish the article.

66. metyrone - December 23, 2009 at 06:31 pm

You make some interesting points, but you don't spend much time discussing the changing role of marriage over the past couple of centuries, which ties in directly with the notion of choosing one's own relationships to pursue or abandon.

Speaking of marriage, I was annoyed and offended by the suggestion that single adults are somehow incapable of making "definitive life choices". Deciding NOT to marry or NOT to have children is as definitive as deciding to do so. To suggest otherwise is insulting to the growing number of single people in today's world.

67. saucebox11 - December 25, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I have been thinking the same thing for months. As I look back into my life I see myself sinking more and more into my own little world and not socialising much. When I do its on msn or xbox live or facebook or some other thing. Its sad really, and i need to change this!!!

68. reishizuno - December 31, 2009 at 01:14 pm

One day, all this impulse for 'information sharing' will lead towards the development of the "single, mass human brain", in which we lose all our identities and individualism, and end up as a gestalt of groupthink.

69. vcascadden - December 31, 2009 at 02:15 pm

I loved the article, and the comments it has prompted. Laziness is one of the biggest factors that undermines true human intimacy, and it has become all too pervasive in this age of internet dating and friendship. We "meet" online, but forget to log off and actually go out and spend time face-to-face with these "friends." Or, we feel safer behind our monitors. Or, we're busy...responding to emails, or writing comments on online boards such as this.

70. eisenstadt - January 04, 2010 at 10:03 am

Dear Mr. Deresiewicz, please identify the book you refer to in the last paragraph. Thanks in advance.

Michael Eisenstadt, Ph.D.
Austin, Texas

71. stapes135 - January 05, 2010 at 11:36 am

In all honesty as a member of this supposed bad generation with all of our problems,it is just complete and utter blashphemy how you all think that just because we have a different style of living then you did when you were growing up we are worse than you are. Does that mean your generation was worse then your parents generation? Because I guarentee you it is no where near similiar. Just because we choose to keep in touch with friends online doesnt mean we are loosing real friends.

72. rbiggs35634 - January 06, 2010 at 03:03 pm

The author seems to think that if Facebook's marketing department says that Facebook "makes our friendship circles visible" it must be true, therefore whatever we see on Facebook must be what modern friendship circles look like. This is nonsense.

According to the author, I am no longer able to distinguish between a casual aquaintence and the best man at my wedding who I have known for a quarter century because they are both Facebook Friends. Is anyone buying this?

The trend of non-stop tweets and status updates DOES say something about the American penchant for narcissism. But the fact that Facebook has co-opted the term "Friend" does not mean that society has forgotten the true meaning of friendship.

73. janice_h - January 07, 2010 at 05:31 am

"As for the moral content of classical friendship, its commitment to virtue and mutual improvement, that, too, has been lost."

It has been mostly lost, but the internet itself is evolving and more serious endeavoures are popping up, like:


74. follanger - January 07, 2010 at 08:17 pm

Interesting and related column in today's New York Times (in the peerless Fashion & Style section, natch) about relationship breakups in the Facebook Universe. Well, it seems the higher you fly your flag the greater its chances of getting ripped by the changing wind... which is to say, the more you advertise your current state of being coupled, to friends and friends of friends ad nauseam, whether it's via Facebook or by shouting it from rooftops, as if it was the second coming of Burton & Taylor or Byron & Lamb (an intriguing parallel since Facebook makes of us celebrities, or at least public figures, of a diminutive sort. Celebrities, of course, live public lives by choice and by necessity; many Facebook users just wander into it by sheer conformity or naivete) the more your later decoupling will be public and the longer the memory of it will linger in the minds and now on the walls of your so-called friends, and the friends of their friends you've never met.

Still, a middle ground seem to be forming in opinion, between the crusty it's new therefore it sucks crowd (to which WD's piece belongs to a point) and the raving it's new therefore I must have it tribe (you know who you are), and that is that Facebook (I put Twitter in a different box altogether) exacerbates certain propensities (say, narcissism, or exhibitionism, not to mention your garden variety insecurities) rather more than it creates any convincingly new ones. That and the growing realization that many people do not fully know how to use it as a tool. Facebook now offers more and more ways of choosing what to publish and to whom, and what to read and from whom. You no longer have to learn of the pathetic antics of pseudo-friend X if you don't want to.

One more thing. Curious, and a bit alarming, the number of comments lamenting the length of this article. Give it up ye timorous Tolstoys, forget about it ye puny Prousts: we now know better and briefer.

75. verena2010 - January 16, 2010 at 04:31 am

I joined facebook to keep in touch with medical school classmates. Although not all of my friends are on facebook, I stay in closer touch with even family members since they have joined than I did previously. I recently considered closing my account due to privacy issues, but after thinking about the impracticality of writing individual emails to friends and family I decided to just cut my facebook friends by 2/3.
Facebook has been invaluable for keeping on top of church events, learning about different hospitals and health systems, being connected to humanitarian groups and finding out about news that particularly affects my profession and social groups. I have been blessed to meet many bright, accomplished and inspiring people with whom I would have liked to become better friends, but time does not permit this. With facebook, I can at least touch base when one of these wonderful people is going through a challenge or has something to celebrate.

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