Thoughts on friendship in the digital age

Afterthoughts: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Afterthoughts: Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

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Friendship can be defined in one of three ways according to google: the emotions or conduct of friends i.e. the state of being friends; a relationship between friends; a state of mutual trust and support between allied nations. In contrast to family, friends we choose. Friends are therefore the families we choose. While that sentiment fits well in the pre-internet era, what does that mean today?

We meet, and connect online with, with a seemingly infinite number of people. What once would have been people we met turns into a friend on Facebook or Instagram, Twitter follower (friend), or even the much maligned LinkedIn connection. 150 is the maximum number of fellow humans can feasibly maintain a stable relationship with according to the research – Dunbar’s number. The size of most digital friends’ list exceed that figure considerably.

There is an inherent ambiguity when you refer someone as a friend. Personally, the bar for me to add someone either on Facebook or Instagram is, perhaps laughably, low. I need just to meet and have a conversation with them once – preferably in person. Usually the thinking goes, this person sounds interesting, then add. It’s become a sort of reflex, and I imagine most digital natives share in this instinct. Alternatively, however, a friend could be someone you have known for 10+ years and with whom you have kept in regular contact. Apart from acquaintance and “close” or “best” friends there are no commonly accept subgroups to distinguish between friends.

The consequence of this ambiguity is that it makes it drifting apart all too natural. With family, there are conventions and expectations around keeping in touch. This has been a constant throughout our history. Most of the time, friendship is the result of time spent in proximity e.g. work, school, sports clubs. Therefore, when the proximity ends so does the spark that powers the friendship. With social media and technology, this spark is extended as we see their updates for better or for worse. If you follow 10 friends, this might be a good thing. But scale that up to a few hundred or even a thousand, it becomes has the potential to more harmful and overwhelming than useful.

At the same time, I find it tough to de-friend people. Most of the time, I would think about this in the context of old high school or even intermediate friends. Most of whom I haven’t kept up with, and probably would never will. But de-friending them feels like I am tainting the memories I had with them. A tangible example of this for me is the friends I made when I was doing Athletics from the age of 10-14. I saw most of them 4-5 times a week across trainings and meets over the summers that period. This is a period I reflect fondly on. I find it tough de-friending them, even though I know that it would be unlikely for me to reach out to them or they me.

It seems as I have come away from this without any clear solutions, or takeaways from this. Perhaps I should just bite the bullet and prune my friends list, but it seems too drastic a move. What is clear, however, is that a distinct lack of online discussion on this topic, at least in the pre-Covid-19 days.

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