How Social Networking Dilutes the Definition of Friendship
It’s my birthday today and, for the first time, I received more birthday wishes from businesses and associates than I did from friends. Bette Midler sang, “You got to have friends,” and I have many friends who kindly remembered my birthday. But when site registration includes a date of birth, birthday messages with15% off coupons can result. (If I receive a 25% off coupon, does that mean we have a stronger relationship?)
MCI’s widely advertised Friends & Family calling program in the early 90’s introduced me to the commodification of friendship. This loyalty program provided “a lower rate for calls made to customers that they had included in their calling circle,” and, furthermore, increased switching cost since a departing customer’s former calling circle had to pay more for calls to that person. This program ended when a flat-rate plan was introduced, allowing people to call their friends without having to designate people as members of their circle.
Marilyn Monroe sang, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” and obviously friendship has varied meanings. Social networking is stretching the definition of friendship even further as sites use different terminology to describe the people one is connected to. LinkedIn asks me to “Add friends or colleagues to your network?” “Friend” appears 29 times on my Facebook profile – and some of my Facebook “friends” are not people I even know well. In contrast, I really like it that twitter calls the people I follow “people”!
I believe that this overuse of “friend” can dilute the word’s meaning. Dionne Warwick’s “That’s what friends are for” is the title of a RevolutionHealth post about how “Good friends hold you together when you are falling apart, even if it’s over the silliest, most minute things.” A friend is “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard,” while social networking contacts are acquaintances or – perhaps a better word – associates: “a person united with another or others in an act, enterprise, or business; a partner or colleague“.
“Studies show that people with close confidants have healthier immune systems, stronger hearts, and less depression and anxiety — not to mention more fun.” While people certainly form tight bonds in online health communities with others who are in a similar situation, I imagine these studies more likely refer to friends in the traditional sense. A study by Dr. Will Reader at Sheffield Hallam University found that most people “have, on average, five really close friends,” whether or not they use social networking sites. (I wonder how many people think that their stature is increased by the number of connections they have in a social networking site.)
It is not surprising that I was happier with the phone calls and cards from my friends, rather than those from businesses and my social networking associates. And what about that e-card from my dentist’s office – it’s hard to get a warm, fuzzy feeling. I can certainly think of more perfect ways to celebrate – in fact, already have! – than “A perfect way to celebrate: 25% off the regular price of…” And, if you are my friend, please come join us!