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Faux Friendship: "…[a] numberless multitude of people, of whom no one was close, no one was distant."
December 14, 2009 5:23 AM   Subscribe

Faux Friendship traces the evolution of friendship from classical times to the modern Internet age. By William Deresiewicz, literary critic and former associate professor of English at Yale. (Warning: long.)
posted by the littlest brussels sprout (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
[A few comments removed. Maybe let's try this again without an immediate derail.]
posted by cortex at 7:22 AM on December 14, 2009


Thanks cortex, I appreciate it.

This is actually a pretty insightful article. I heard Andrew Sullivan give a similarly-themed lecture last month. The most memorable line from the evening was "You don't have sex with your friends." The discovery and recovery of philia, as distinct from both eros and agape, should be part of any well-lived life.
posted by valkyryn at 7:31 AM on December 14, 2009


The new group friendship, already vitiated itself, is cannibalizing our individual friendships as the boundaries between the two blur

Mostly due to the ease with which one can have trivial exchanges over fb. There's a sense of being in contact, but it's often illusory, considering how little of your friend is conveyed through a Oh no! cow that wandered off their farm, a ten-word picture comment, a short status update or a YT "like".

Facebook is a useful site for fostering contacts or as an online list of people like that guy you once met, and knowing you can find people online is cool but if you already feel at ease calling or meeting someone, fb isn't the optimum medium for the message of friendship. /cheesy end

I'd totally friend whoever invented Skype though.
posted by ersatz at 7:41 AM on December 14, 2009


The most memorable line from the evening was "You don't have sex with your friends."

Can we put that as a banner in AskMe/Human Relations?
posted by ersatz at 7:42 AM on December 14, 2009


A study found that one American in four reported having no close confidants, up from one in 10 in 1985. The figures date from 2004, and there's little doubt that Facebook and texting and all the rest of it have already exacerbated the situation. The more people we know, the lonelier we get.

Sorry, but this is wrong. In fact, recent research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project explicitly refutes the study he cites:
"Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. We find that the extent of social isolation has hardly changed since 1985, contrary to concerns that the prevalence of severe isolation has tripled since then. Only 6% of the adult population has no one with whom they can discuss important matters or who they consider to be “especially significant” in their life."

I found this author's discussion of the historical views of friendship interesting, but I have a very big problem with people like him who write about the social impacts of new technologies without actually consulting *any* of the mountains of social research on the topic. He generalizes his own experience of Facebook to all FB users, without giving any serious consideration to the idea that maybe other people get something very different from the experience.

The problem, if there is one, seems to be more of a linguistic one: FB has, through its technological decision to employ the word "friend" forced its users to extend that term to a range of relationships that may or may not be accurately described as "friendship" in the more traditional sense. But I don't think the use of the term "friend" to describe people who are really acquaintances, or contacts, or family members, or what have you, necessarily precludes the existence of deep, connected relationships.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:29 AM on December 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm a fairly active FB user, and I don't see it as a medium of friendship. I use it to plan events, get interesting/funny links, and to send out interesting/funny links. Most of my close friends have a very thin presence on Facebook, and most of the people I interact with frequently (through 'liking' or responding to status updates) aren't very close friends in real life.

Facebook has confused the term friend in the way that it uses it, but hasn't changed what the word actually means.


The problem, if there is one, seems to be more of a linguistic one: FB has, through its technological decision to employ the word "friend" forced its users to extend that term to a range of relationships that may or may not be accurately described as "friendship" in the more traditional sense. But I don't think the use of the term "friend" to describe people who are really acquaintances, or contacts, or family members, or what have you, necessarily precludes the existence of deep, connected relationships.


Exactly.
posted by codacorolla at 8:43 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Datapoint - I use FB to keep track of what my friends/acquantinces/co workers are up to in a general sense, to get back in touch with people I lost track of, to play silly games, and to make use of the Event feature for scheduling and keeping track of get togethers.
My friendships, however, began offline, and are maintained/nurtured offline, and while trading ducks and flippant status messages is basically a fun way of saying 'yep, still here', isn't the actual meat or basis of any actual relationship I have.

What that has to do with the special nature of classical Greek friendships, I cannot say.
posted by sandraregina at 8:48 AM on December 14, 2009


After reading this article last week, I deleted about 250 friends. After a few years of 500+ "friends", I really don't want to know about everyone's stupid problems. I have enough of my own.

Also, the stalker vibe has gradually grown in my opinion. I don't necessarily care whether people are interested in my mundane site interactions, but I often found myself stalking people out of morbid curiosity. Like myself, most people are not innately entertaining enough to make this activity a good use of free time (compared to other things I could be doing, like actually hanging out with people in the real world).
posted by mezamashii at 9:17 AM on December 14, 2009


I could not get to the end of the original article, mostly because I agree with it and find it obvious. But there was a link on the side to another article by the same author which I read attentively. It was excellent. A little reductive:

Romanticism means this, Modernisms means this, Postmodernism means this. But if that aspect was a little annoying, he had some terrific observations in there.

The End of Solitude.
posted by bukvich at 9:41 AM on December 14, 2009


William Deresiewicz wrote another article that I quite liked back when I read it: The End of Solitude. I've been thinking a lot about solitude lately and how I've only ever known it very sporadically. I never have fantasies of going off and being by myself without any contact but sometimes I wonder if maybe I should have those fantasies and perhaps it would be good to experience that every once in a while.

Anyway, I should read Faux Friendship now.
posted by Kattullus at 9:50 AM on December 14, 2009


Oh hey, I should preview.
posted by Kattullus at 9:50 AM on December 14, 2009


"O, my friends, there is no friend."
posted by rusty at 10:01 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think his discussion of technology confuses an effect for a cause - the only reason Facebook can dominate our social lives is because it takes the form that people want it to. The interesting question is, why do we want it that way?

The notion of "therapeutic friendship" is a great description of today's ideal form of friendship, but isn't it also true that the network of friends is the perfect form for it to take? We're no longer connected to individual people that we have on-going, permanent relationships with. Instead, we're connected to the network itself, and not really concerned with any individual member. The strength of a network is that it doesn't have a single point of failure, so I never need to make any kind of permanent connection to any individual.

Since we believe in independence and self-expression, this has come to mean that the presence of others is potentially threatening, infringing on my rights. They are potentially harrassing me, judging me, being a negative or "toxic" person, not respecting my boundaries or telling me how to live. We feel entitled to a constant stream of reassurances to boost our self-esteem, we're hypersensitive to being offensive or "inappropriate" and we've discovered new types of metaphorical rape - verbal rape, emotional rape, mental rape. Is the homeless person at the bus stop an olfactory rapist?

I'm not trying to make some kind of cheap point about how we're so sensitive and we need to get over ourselves and toughen up. No, the situation is much more depressing! It's that there's a background assumption that the essence of every human interaction is an unacceptable instrusion or infringement, and this leads to the hyper-regulation of relationships. This sounds like a lot of work, so to avoid that, we think it's better to keep our distance: don't get too involved, don't commit too much or expect too much, don't depend on others, don't be needy. You have no obligations to others, and they have none to you, except to leave each other alone to do what we want. Don't ask a friend to meet you on time, they're more into being spontaneous. Don't ask your boyfriend where the relationship is going, he might think you're taking things seriously, that you expect things from him.

This is increasingly becoming the social norm. Just like we have fat-free faux-desset, sugar-free faux-sugar, now we have social networks - relationship-free relationships. Same great taste, but zero calories! Faux-friendship is the perfect word.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:30 PM on December 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


The more people we know, the lonelier we get.

What DiscourseMarker said. It seems like this guy is working from a pre-supposed notion, rather than actually looking at the research.

The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation.

"Time was, everybody knew everybody else. People said hello and they meant it. Folks went to bed at a decent time, and jeans were only worn by prisoners. Someone would invite you over for coffee and you'd end up talking for eight days. Some people think modern society is an improvement. My question is, an improvement on what?"
posted by mrgrimm at 12:46 PM on December 14, 2009


I agree that Facebook (and Friendster before it) use the word "friend" as a term of art to describe something that isn't really friendship as we all know it. Of course, if they stick around, that is if Facebook and its successor become as integral to our society as the phone book and newspaper were for the last generation, then the meaning of the word "friend" will change.

A quick google search tells me that Deresiewicz has published a book on Austen, but I think he's missed a trick in citing the end of Emma, where she and Knightley are married in front of "a small band of true friends," as a bellwether for modern coterie friendship. At the turn of the nineteenth century, "friends" could still mean your relatives, basically whoever was economically responsible for you. I'm pretty sure this is an Austenian usage.

Also: there's a move in this piece that I see a lot in humanities writing. Authors use literary evidence in discussing the past (Achilles and Patroclus, Jonathan and David, Montaigne and La Boetie) and then shift to sociological or pseudo-sociological anecdotal evidence when discussing the present. In this case, Deresiewicz sticks with literary evidence right up through Friends and then only switches to his amateur sociology of Facebook when his argument gets to 2005.

This may be unavoidable, if the literature of the Facebook era hasn't been written/filmed yet (or if narcissistic self-documentation is our literature now, which I doubt). But I think it elides something. Shallow relationships based on networking institutions are not unique to this century. Before people had Facebook, they had Elks Clubs and Masonic Lodges and an infinite variety of religious, social, ethnic, and cultural groups. All of these were forums in which you could have a lot of friends without actually needing to be friends. If they're on the wane now, perhaps it's because Facebook is doing, at least partially, what they used to do.
posted by sy at 2:56 PM on December 14, 2009


We're no longer connected to individual people that we have on-going, permanent relationships with. Instead, we're connected to the network itself, and not really concerned with any individual member.

This is not my experience. I do have a network of same-sex friends, and the group is a self conscious, if fluid, group. We play cards together and I am the late comer, as I joined the game in 1994. But the reason the card game has been going on for 20 years is not because of the network, but in fact just the opposite. Its because of the individual connections which have been cultivated one-on-one over the years. We keep the network going because the friendships are so important. We only actually play cards about an eighth as much as we did when I started playing, but the friendships are still very strong.
posted by shothotbot at 4:22 PM on December 14, 2009


At the turn of the nineteenth century, "friends" could still mean your relatives, basically whoever was economically responsible for you. I'm pretty sure this is an Austenian usage.

I think you're right...there's a point in Pride and Prejudice, after Lydia has run off with Wickham, when someone says, "Why would he do this? She's not friendless," or something similar, and it always strikes me that "friend" there means something different from "people you like and are intimate with," it means something more like, "she has people who will look out for her honor," or "she has people who will enforce consequences on your ass if you elope with her, whether you go to Gretna Green [apparently the Las Vegas of the 19th century] or not."
posted by not that girl at 9:59 PM on December 14, 2009


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