Writing frightening verse

The papers have been all over Will Reader‘s presentation at the British Association Festival of Science; the Guardian alone has run two separate stories by James Randerson, headed “Social networking sites don’t deepen friendships” and, more bluntly, “Warning: you can’t make real friends online”.

I’ve been socialising online for over ten years now, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made (and lost) some real friends in that time, so I think that second headline is a bit silly. More to the point, I think presenting the story that way risks creating controversy rather than debate: I know that I’ve made friends online, you know that they can’t have been real friends, we shout at each other in comments boxes for a few days and entertainment results. (Possibly. Traffic results, anyway.)

What Reader is reporting is more nuanced and more tentative than that. From the Graun‘s story (the one with the ‘warning’ headline):

The team asked more than 200 people to fill in questionnaires about their online networking, asking for example how many online friends they had, how many of these were close friends and how many they had met face to face. The team found that although the sites allowed contact with hundreds of acquaintances, as with conventional friendship networks, people tend to have around five close friends.

Ninety per cent of contacts whom the subjects regarded as close friends were people they had met face to face. “People see face to face contact as being absolutely imperative in forming close friendships,” added Dr Reader. He told the British Association Festival of Science in York that social networking sites allow people to broaden their list of nodding acquaintances because staying in touch online is easy. “What social network sites can do is decrease the cost of maintaining and forming these social networks because we can post information to multiple people,” he said.

But to develop a real friendship we need to see that the other person is trustworthy, said Dr Reader. “What we need is to be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us, is really going to be there for us when we need them … It’s very easy to be deceptive on the internet.”

The results are interesting – although ‘more than 200’ sounds like a pretty small sample – and Reader’s interpretation seems pretty reasonable. But I part company with him in the last couple of sentences quoted here: the major problem with online sociality is not the lack of identity verification. I’ve been on a couple of mailing lists for several years; there are fifty or sixty people I’ve known, online, for longer than I’ve known many of my real-world friends. We use our real names on those lists; we talk about work, family and relationships; we occasionally arrange meetings.

All in all, the scope for deliberate deception is very limited. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call every one of those fifty or sixty people a close friend. The point isn’t that online relationships are a fraudulent imitation of emotionally real relationships, which are demanding and require commitment; the point is that online relationships have their own emotional reality, which is relatively uncommitted and relatively undemanding. There’s a broader truth to Clay Shirky’s pessimistic comments about the Howard Dean campaign, which I wrote about back here:

the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world. … the difference between “would you” and “will you” is enormous — when “would you use this product?” changes to “will you use it?”, user behaviour frequently changes dramatically. “Would you vote for Howard Dean?” and “Will you vote for Howard Dean?” are two different questions, and it may be that a lot of people who “would” vote for Dean, in some hypothetical world where you could vote in the same way you can make a political donation on Amazon, didn’t actually vote for him when it meant skipping dinner with friends to drive downtown in the freezing cold and venture into some church basement with people who might prefer some other candidate to Dean.

Similarly, with the best will in the world there’s a difference between Would you put yourself out for a friend? and Will you put yourself out for a friend? – particularly when you’ve never actually met the friend in question. In other words, the point is precisely not that we can’t be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us [and] is really going to be there for us when we need them: the point is that we can’t assume that those two things go together. This disjuncture between emotional investment and binding, push-comes-to-shove mutual obligation isn’t entirely new – think of penfriends or AA groups – but I think it’s fair to say that the spread of online sociality has made it a much more widespread experience.

What’s going on – or rather, what’s specifically not going on – is summed up by the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, quoted here by Ulises Mejias:

In order to observe a lived experience of my own, I must attend to it reflectively. By no means, however, need I attend reflectively to my lived experience of your lived experience. On the contrary, by merely “looking” I can grasp even those of your lived experiences which you have not yet noticed and which are for you still prephenomenal and undifferentiated. This means that, whereas I can observe my own lived experiences only after they are over and done with, I can observe yours as they actually take place. This in turn implies that you and I are in a specific sense “simultaneous,” that we “coexist,” that our respective stream of consciousness intersect

Simultaneity, the ability to experience our consciousness in parallel, is a defining feature of face-to-face interactions. The outcome of this inter-subjectivity is not that we are able to “read” the other person’s mind. It is simply a realization that ‘I am experiencing a fellow human being.’

I suspect that this experience of continuous mutual presence – what Schutz called the ‘We-relationship’ – is the distinguishing feature of close friendships. It’s a relatively rare experience – and social networking software doesn’t make it any less so.

One final thought. What would a collective We-relationship – the experience of the consciousness of time passing, of an event unfolding, shared and reflected within a group of people – look like and feel like? Something like a really good meeting? (Physical presence, again, is hard to do without. I’ve attended multi-site Access Grid meetings; it’s great being able to see people’s faces, but it’s impossible to meet anybody’s eye.) Or something like this?

Modern religions demand ‘belief’, an act of the imagination; traditional ritual didn’t need to demand any such thing as it offered direct experience of ‘god’, ie, of society, of social solidarity.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 15 September 2007 at 12:49 | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this – I thought it was really interesting.

    I think another point to make is that friendship is not a zero sum game. There are boundaries to consider. Someone you’ve had interesting chats with online isn’t necessarily someone you’d go down the pub with – even though you might like them more than the people you actually do go down the pub with.

    I smile and say hello to certain people in the neighbourhood who seem very nice but I don’t invite them round for tea and biscuits.

    To some extent we could see online relationships as more shallow but I think it misses the form that friendship takes. You may be confiding things with them that you’d never tell another soul – partly because you know you’ll never meet them.

    It’s interesting that studies like this can happen without actually attempting to understand what is friendship

  2. Posted 19 September 2007 at 03:37 | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Phil. Hope you don’t mind but I tagged you with a meme here. Hope you find time for it.

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