Friendship and technology

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

The major success of Facebook and other social network sites is in the creation of a perpetual cognizance for what is going on in the lives of other people. Prior to the introduction of these systems, the task of remaining aware of someone else’s life events involved making phone calls, writing letters or visiting.

In the era of our parents’ youth, the idea that you could follow the life trajectory of every member of you high school graduating class was a ridiculous suggestion. Following high school, you fell out of contact with many people. It was not feasible to do otherwise. However, to us, this search is no more than a few clicks away at any time.

Recently, this prospect has intrigued me. I began to seek out those with whom I had not talked in months, but whom I still remained tangentially connected to through Facebook. This sort of methodical catching up, while informative, still involved seeking after the information I wanted. In an era of high speed internet and algorithms that decide what I see on my computer screen, this was decidedly unexciting.

More surprising are the random life events that I see by chance—events that just happen to appear as soon as I login to the world’s largest social network site. Since the beginning of the school year, I have learned of two weddings, three engagements, two deaths and uncountable other details, all concerning only members of my high school graduating class. I didn’t learn about these events through any intent of my own. Rather, I found them in passing. While scanning Facebook’s news feed, the front page, I was informed of these happenings because an algorithm deemed them important.

That is not altogether a bad thing though. To Facebook, it appears that I am still connected to those with whom I am “friends” on Facebook. The computers then determine that major life events (marriage, engagement, etc.) are important enough to share publicly, even if I haven’t interacted with the person involved in three years, perhaps longer.
In this way, denoting those that you come in contact with as “friends” on Facebook is troubling.

Currently, I am working through the book “Friendship” by A.C. Grayling. Grayling uses the monograph to define “friendship” throughout history by tracing the use and meaning of the word from the ancient Greeks to the present. In reading, while nothing is particularly life-changing about the myriad of definitions, it becomes apparent that our pathetic conception of “friendship” belies a great historical tradition of friends as the most important relationship in one’s life.

A significantly-briefer-than-necessary timeline of Grayling’s work includes inquiry into Plato and Aristotle, who both alleged that people form friendships because of a mutual utility in doing so. Later, Cicero, Augustine and Francis Bacon all expanded that definition, normally by evoking the emotional benefits of friendship.

Grayling also brings up the portrayal of friends in literature. This investigation concludes by saying that friendships are the most important relationship one can make in a lifetime, equalling or even surpassing family. Put another way, the prospect of having a single friend is the most demanding but rewarding prospect in one’s lifetime. We’re all Nick Carraways, and we can all find some Jay Gatsbys to entertain us for the weekend. As a James Watson, Sherlock Holmes is once-in-a-lifetime sort of meeting.

Of course, I am aware that the friendship that Grayling describes and the relationship connoted by “friending” someone on Facebook are two different phenomena. That said, why? Grayling concluded his history with a suggestion that anyone could have made before reading; friendships “give meaning to our lives, just as our lives give meaning to them: without them we are less, and in danger of being too close to nothing.”

The subjugation of such a powerful term as “friend” for use on the internet seems at this point to be criminal. Friendship, historically, is something shared between two or three people in a lifetime, not the 500 I can access at a moment’s notice. As a college student, this distinction is now more important than ever. As students graduate and go into the world to pursue careers, it is important to remember that a simple connection on Facebook, or another internet site, is not the lasting kind of relationship for someone you’ve spent the last four years with, assuming you want to stay in contact with them.

As seniors embark on their final semester, preparing for whatever challenges lay beyond the ivory tower of Case Western Reserve University, it is important to acknowledge that. Making connections is more important than simply friending someone on Facebook or connecting with them via LinkedIn. These services have their place. But that place is not the imposition of other relationships.

In the next semester, senior or not, cultivate these strong relationships. Find out again what makes friendship a lasting and meaningful part of one’s life. Maybe after this, one can come to know what drove Watson to write that Holmes “was the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.”

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, Vice President of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former Chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.