Recently, a colleague and I began to form a friendship, and slowly this friendship started to grow outside of the work arena. However, rather than exchanging phone numbers and maintaining communication through this network, the relationship was officiated through very different platforms. First we followed each other on Instagram; then became Facebook Friends; then SnapChat; and after this we decided to exchange phone numbers. This evolution of our friendship was a type of ‘social grooming’, a modern day ‘social etiquette’ of revealing yourself in an ordered manner. It is a type of courtship amongst the younger generation; a slow unveiling of introducing your social media identity before allowing another entry into your private space.
Is this the new 21st century friendship formation? boyd and Ellison (2008) differentiate between everyday “friends” and Friends, which is capitalised, as Friends on social network systems. The latter Friends requires a formal “bi-directional confirmation for Friendship”, as an intent to be connected via a specific network. This connection could mean a way to see inside your “online representation of self”. For example, once my colleague and I confirmed our Instagram and Facebook Friendship we agreed to allow each other to see what visual way we filter / represent our day-to-day life, what content we share or like and opened a direct messaging portal.
boyd and Ellison’s essay focuses on the ‘showcasing’ abilities of social networks, rather than the content that is shared across these networks. Whilst this may have been the case during publication in 2008, this visibility element has shifted to being more focused on the content that you share, such as images, videos, articles, statuses…etc. While the organisation of the online community has shifted, the creation and formulation of the ‘online representation of self’ has grown stronger, with growing pressures to appear a certain way, to filter a perception of the self. boyd and Ellison discussed how social network sites were constructed as ‘egocentric’ networks, with the “individual at the centre of the community”. We create a social media space to represent a desired perception of ourselves, through a selective and filtered online identity.
Which leads me to ask if there is any semantic shift in the way we understand the term ‘friend’ since social network sites became a norm in our everyday lives? If there is a need to differentiate friend and Friend, and the line between online and offline blurs, what happens to our understanding of friendship? In 2011, Sherry Turkle argued a cultural tolerance for being ‘alone together’, where the intimacy of friendship is managed on a friendship-on-demand model. There is an illusion of companionship, an illusion of a two-way social dynamic relationship. When observing the emotional validation and importance of the ‘Like it’ button when a status is put up, we can see how we are managing this friendship model through a validation of impressions, and of how many likes. Take for instance the concept of specific hashtags that exist to get you more ‘friends’ (followers), for example #followback on Twitter or #tagsforlikes on Instagram. These are some of the most popular hashtags, which brings us back to Turkle’s ideas that the dynamic on social networks are an illusion. Our performance is managed through the number of likes or followers in order to make us feel validated, but instead we are ‘alone together’.
As my colleague and I add each other on Facebook, we joke that we are now officiated, because we are ‘Facebook official’. A common joke poking at the farcical level of meaning placed into relationships on social media. It is important to differentiate between the values and relations we expect from a friend and those of an acquaintance sustained via the social media channel as a Friend. Academics and social scientists have gone into depth into the ethical concerns of ‘virtual’ friendships and the loss of necessary emotional intimacy, which is partially summarised by Joseph Kahn here. But perhaps it’s a semantic shift that needs to be appropriated. Many friendships are commonly supplemented via an online element, such as emails or social media, some (such as long distance) are maintained with greater ease this way; and others are those who are acquaintances or former friends, such as old school friends, who are retained here, perhaps for nostalgic reasons or prying curiosity.
What do you think, is there a difference between Friend and friend? Let me know in your comments below.