Friends offer more than a link

Published in the Courier Mail 7 January 2008

HOW many friends do you have? With the rise in popularity of networking sites, it’s a question that’s harder to answer these days.
Few would argue that social networking sites, with user-generated profiles and lists of “friends”, are big news. Facebook membership doubled in the past year, with about 55 million people now signed up. MySpace has just over 110 million members.

They are also big money. Microsoft recently paid $240 million for a 1.6 per cent stake of Facebook and just two years ago, News Corporation bought MySpace for $580 million. Obviously, online advertising revenue is an attractive proposition.

The reasons for the popularity of these sites are basically the same reasons why cafes are so popular. We are a sociable species. I love catching up with friends over a great espresso, and I love staying in touch electronically. I have rediscovered old school friends through Facebook and technology makes it easier to stay in touch with friends who are travelling or who now live overseas.

However, the ability to find and add all of these people to your list of friends poses an interesting little dilemma. What makes a friend? There have always been old friends floating around the city. Does the fact that you add each other to an electronic network mean you are now going to re-establish a meaningful relationship? Or does it simply mean you say “hi” and exchange the “what are you up to these days?” pleasantries, much as you would if you saw them in the street, before sitting idly in each other’s friends list, not being deleted but not really interacting?

Does being on a list a friend make?

I’m not yet aware of anyone developing modern protocols relating to friends lists. Do the lists have to have any sense of integrity? Can the people on your friends list be acquaintances or must the relationship be made of stronger stuff to count? What if someone you loosely know adds you? Is it poor form to ignore their friend request, or is it the height of superficiality to add them knowing that your interaction will be limited at best? And yet, what if the acquaintance is someone you genuinely think is a great human being but you have just never really had the chance to develop a friendship? And they say internet dating is hard work. Try just being friends.

Shedding some light on the popularity of social networking, Professor Jeremy Bailenson, of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, northern California, said: “We are very social animals and this allows us to ramp it up to a whole other order of magnitude.”

To add another level of complexity, he also pointed to the popularity of virtual worlds, such as Second Life, and commented that such sites allow people to “interact as their ideal self and not their real self. You can be whatever age you want – 20 forever – dress any way you want, be any gender you want, and be socialising with zillions of people at once all the time”.

One wonders if Bailenson has been spending just a little too much time at the lab. I’m quite a social person, but the thought of socialising with zillions of people at once all the time is, quite frankly, exhausting.

And it doesn’t matter how many “friends” you have on the list, if you are not interacting as your real self.

If you are not your real self, any relationships you develop are not real. They are play-acting – froth and bubble that disappear when you turn off the computer. Virtual community might be fun but it will never take the place of authentic community.

We are social beings and we all need friends – real friends.

We need friends who share life with us in good and bad times, who love us unconditionally and who can help us move house, celebrate a birthday or cry with us when we lose a loved one.

These friendships take time, courage, forgiveness and honesty. These friendships require an investment much higher than a “website only” friend, but their worth is beyond compare.

By all means, let’s continue to stay in touch electronically, but let us never neglect the real for the allure of the virtual.

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer.