How Do I Know We are Friends?: Friendship in the age of social media
We live in an age where the definition of friendship has drastically shifted. We can attribute this to a variety of different factors: social media, pop culture, an increase in technology use in our lives, etc. While becoming ‘Facebook friends’ is as simple as accepting a virtual request, those friendships might never involve engaging in actual conversation; which makes me wonder - did those friendships actually ever exist at all? With all the tools and means of communication we have that (in many ways) make connecting easier, how do we actually know if someone is a true friend or not? Should physical interactions should be taken into account when defining who or what a friend is?
Like anyone else, I have social media personalities that I like to follow. I watch their Insta stories, YouTube videos and generally keep tabs on what they are up to by means of social media. These "celebrities" motivate me to pursue my dreams, and unlike my physical friends, are often more accessible - just a YouTube click away.
So when I found myself telling a story the other day to one of my friends at a cafe and then casually referring to one of these online personalities as ‘my friend’, I suddenly became aware of the blurred line between my physical and virtual social lives. I was retelling a YouTuber’s story on how to practice gratitude as if it were my story to tell. The scary part is that it came so naturally that I had to pause and think twice about what had just come out of my mouth. How did I get to the point of referring to someone I had never actually spoken with as a ‘friend’?
There are varying opinions and debates on the actual effects of social media on our in-person interactions in our daily lives. In studies conducted in the last decade, we can see that the effects of social media have become more and more detrimental over the last two to three years. This could be linked to an increase in the amount of time spent on networking and social media platforms. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2005, only 5% of Americans were using Facebook, however, by 2018 more than 68% of adults in the U.S. and close to 50% worldwide were using at least one social media platform. On average, adults in Europe and North America will have spent 5 full years of their lives on social media.
Between trying to make a living and maintaining social relationships, it has become especially easy for millennials to resort to artificial social closeness to meet their basic human needs for social interactions. So how do we really know who our friends are in a world where the term ‘friend’ seems so blurred? Is it justified to call someone a friend who you’ve never spoken with in real life? Or is true friendship only possible face-to-face? Sometimes I worry that my online friendships are taking away from the time I could be spending forming meaningful relationships in real life.
In an article in Psychology Today, Alex Pattakos claims that our quest to create more and more friends through popular social media platforms has led to us feeling more disconnected in reality. Research states that we can only maintain around 150 real friendships and the desire to have more connections leads to emotional attachments to online celebrities, referred to as parasocial interactions, and consequently detachment from our real life connections.
I came to wonder whether these tendencies were at all generational, so I started observing my younger sister. Of course, I can’t make sweeping generalizations about Generation Z based solely on her behavior, however, it seems much easier for her to join social networks out of sheer curiosity or FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”) than for me. My mom, on the other hand, believes that the only way to build a true friendship is by continually meeting someone in person.
I am not saying that social media is overtly bad, far from it, however, we cannot discredit the need for physical and reciprocated emotional interactions. I think true friendship occurs when we are able to exchange emotions, ideas, conversation, consolation, a drink, a hobby and when the situation allows, a meeting every now and then! Friendship is built on sharing common ground and on mutual love and consideration for each other.
While I am not discrediting my online friendships, I do think using the term ‘friend’ can be a bit of an overstatement. Such a title needs to be earned and can’t solely be based on the illusion of familiarity. Perhaps Facebook should reconsider their terminology, in fact I much prefer Instagram’s use of ‘follower’ as it doesn’t create the perception or the pressure of having a two way interaction. It better acknowledges what still remains on the surface and helps us maintain that distinction between acquaintance and friend. Do you make a distinction between your online and offline ‘friends’, if so how?
Live, Learn, Love, Laugh.