Would you Poke Aristotle? Do Facebook and MySpace Warp our Ideals of Friendship and Community?
Christine Rosen warns us about the effects of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, on our ideas of community, privacy, and friendship.
On the one hand, social networking sites (SNS) allow us to do some very amazing things nowadays. They allow us to connect or reconnect with people all around the world through email, instant messaging, and video conferencing. You can talk to old friends from high school or new acquaintances in Beijing. This feature of SNS offers a kind of liberatory experience: we are now able to build relationships with people in ways that human beings have never before in our history. We are no longer bounded by region, territory, social role, family, or occupation as to the kinds of companions we can have. This allows us to meet people based on our own interests, ideas, and preferences and to share our joy with others based on those specific parts of our individuality.
Rosen points out that the technology of SNS, however, tends to reinforce some very harmful attitudes about companionship. They use the language of friendship to talk about the contacts made in cyberspace, but she thinks that these relationships are really "dilutions" and "debasements" of real friendship.
First, SNS encouage people to collect as many "friends" as they can. There are even websites that will create fake people to be your friends, just in case no one wants to link to your Facebook or MySpace page. Rosen says this suggests that it is more important to have a great quantity of friends, rather than quality relationships, on SNS. Collecting friends, then, is not about satisfying a need for companionship, but about acquiring status. The technology encourages us to be our own little celebrities, to draw attention to ourselves, and even to post more and more outrageous photos of our lives, in order to attract people who will want to be our friends (hence the proliferation of all those self-portraits taken on cell phones by young men and women, sitting around in their underwear--or less-- or flexing in front of the mirror).
Rosen worries how these kinds of attitudes will affect our expectations about our "offline", i.e. real friends and companions. One concern is that SNS teach people that friends are people to be "managed"--you can add them, "poke" them, delete them, not allow them to see your private information, etc--for your own benefit or pleasure. She worries how this kind of narcissism will translate into the way young people will treat their real peers in community. She also points to studies that suggest that people who spend a lot of time in SNS are less socially involved in their actual communities, and that those who use SNS for romantic involvement tend to have low self-esteem and emotional maturity.
Aristotle recognized that there were many different kinds of relationships that contributed to a complete human life. He thought there were three different kinds of friends:
The first are those people with whom we associate because they bring some kind of advantage or benefit to us. Work colleagues are a good example of this--someone might be useful to me in getting a promotion or a new job.
The second kind of friends are those people with whom we associate because they bring us pleasure. Drinking buddies, or members of the knitting club, are examples of this--these are people I like to see when I want to have fun and entertainment
The final kind of friends, and the one that Aristotle thinks is the most "perfect" form of friendship, are those people with whom we associate because they assist us in becoming better, more virtuous, more ethical, human beings. These kinds of friends spend a lot of their lives together, helping one another, comforting one another, trying to bring out the best in one another. Aristotle talks about the true friends as someone who holds up a mirror to us and shows us what kind of person we really are. For Aristotle, these kinds of people will be rare in our lives.
It may be the case that SNS encourage us to confuse these different categories of friends. It seems possible that our "friendsters" bring us pleasure and might be of some advantage to us (especially if we share interests in hobbies, music, books, etc). Rosen's worry seems to be that building the kind of trust, intimacy, and genuine sharing needed for virtue friendships is hardly to be found on SNS and the more time we spend on them, the less time and ethical knowledge we have to learn how to be "real friends" with someone.
Critics of Aristotle point out that he seems to think that friends are going to be very like minded, sharing ideals of what the good life will be, and working toward those ideas as a united front. But it seems unrealistic to think, in today's world, that we will find people who will be so like minded as to be complete mirrors of ourselves. Maybe its better to think of friends, as Alan Watt does, as those people who will challenge, confront, and argue with us to become better people by presenting us with differences instead of sameness. The only problem here, as Rosen points out, is that a perusal of MySpace, for instance, will reveal how very alike people are to one another. Profiles come in prearranged formats with little details to be filled in about your interest in popular culture (that homogeneity is the norm is not surprising since MySpace is owned by Rupert Murdoch's huge media conglomerate that now includes FOX and The Wall Street Journal). But standardization is more the rule in cyberspace. There may not be a lot available there to really even challenge us to live beyond the box which is our own little world bounded by family, social role, and territory.
Will it be necessary to develop new language of friendship for the future? And since Aristotle thought that democracy only really worked among a community of people who could trust each other as friends, what will SNS mean for the future of democracy?