How Social Networking Dilutes the Definition of Friendship

April 30, 2008 at 12:57 am 3 comments

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!


Entry filed under: health, online health communities, Web 2.0. Tags: , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Where’s the Love? « Safe Digression  |  April 1, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    […] me, it seems that homogenizing everything into a culture of like (much like a community of “friends“) devalues the engagement. Basing everything on a tally of “likes” creates an […]

  • 2. Kate Britt  |  May 25, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    An expansion on your topic: How social networking can lead to friendship. For people like me who work (and sort of live) online, social networking is one of the ways to meet new people. Gradually we find out more about them, find what (and who) we have in common, begin chatting about that stuff, increase frequency of communication….. Personally, I have met and/or bonded with many new friends online, often more easily than in person. I have friends I’ve never met in person because of geographic distance. Within your posting’s definition, they are friends, no longer “social networking contacts”.

  • 3. meaning of friendship  |  May 21, 2008 at 5:15 am

    […] of friendship even further as sites use different terminology to describe the people one is … Friendship Page: Writing: The Meaning of FriendshipWhat does friendship really mean? Gain […]


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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa:


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