World and Mind

September 10, 2007

Facebook and Friends – some thoughts for the upcoming meeting of the Brighton Salon

Filed under: Facebook,Social networking technologies,the Brighton Salon — by theuth @ 9:15 pm


It seems Facebook and social networking technologies more generally are going to loom large in this meeting, although perhaps this wasn’t what we envisaged when we first discussed getting Helen Birtwistle down to the Brighton Salon to talk on friendship. (see meeting details here)

It shows how things can change in a few months

Now it seems that the whole idea of friendship is being re-thought through the prism of social networking technologies (SNTs). It is not clear to me if this is as it first seems a complete overreaction. Rather, it might be the proper moment for some thought on what new forms of social engagement, ways of being and just ways of conducting everyday life these tools make possible.

From personal musings, reading a few of the endless articles on social networking technology in the press, talking to friends (and acquaintances) over the last couple of months, and just interacting via Facebook, there does seem to be something going on. But is it anything more than another fad?

If nothing else, I’m convinced from personal use that tools like Facebook are around to stay. Like the mobile phone and the word-processor before it, once you start using SNTs, and especially Facebook (which I think for a host of reasons is the current uber-SNT) it quickly becomes difficult to imagine what things were like before. They just seamlessly shift into becoming part of your life. Especially for those of us who spend much of our daily life in an office in at least the proximity of a computer, Facebook quickly becomes an invaluable aid to keep track of what is going on with whom. More intimately, it shifts into the background noise of life.

It seems to do a bit more than this though, and this brings us to friendship. Everyone on on a facebook page is represented (at least superficially) in the same way, and they are all your ‘friends”.

This leads me to ponder some deeper questions on SNTs and friendship:

Do they, SNTs, change the nature of friendship?

Or, do they just reveal something that has already happened to friendship and other intimate relationships?

Indeed, is it really true that friendship has changed?

What has and will happen to friendship in the time of Facebook?

Many people I have spoken to, and I admit myself at first, are deeply suspicious of using Facebook. Some just find it difficult to understand what you’d need these things for anyway. Why would you want to have this sort of drip-feed of information about many casual acquaintances. Isn’t it just an electronic version of that tiresome thing the round-robin letter. Doesn’t it actually efface what friendship is supposed to be about, i.e. deep personal contact. Isn’t the very point of friendship that your contact is personal and unmediated. Not a sort of broadcast to everyone you are in contact with. People obviously have very different standards on this and maybe Facebook encourages a little paranoia in those of us not comfortable with letting it all hang-out to an open-ended world of not just those we know, but strangers.

One thing that I won’t say too much on (as I don’t want to steal our speaker’s thunder) is that Facebook in particular seems to collapse a whole bunch of distinctions between, acquaintances, work-mates, family and of course genuine friends. The worry of course is that our intimate relationships become more instrumental in the process. We think of our friends as colleagues and visa-versa. Distinctions that were once central, useful, and played a role in our self-definitions, tend to become blurred.

We see this in how some embrace Facebook in a way that make many of us both suspicious and a bit queezy. Examples are those, innocent souls, who put lots of intimate details on their face-book page without even bothering to turn on the privacy settings. Do you really want the whole world to know your girlfriend’s just dumped you. Or, all your colleagues to see pictures of how you dress up on the weekend. Perhaps the most interesting thing – and again I’m speaking from personal experience here – is how quickly ones boundaries change. Will the nature of our friendships change with them?

Just a few thoughts then and obviously there’s a lot to think about here. I’m very much looking forward to our next discussion.



  1. SNTs may enlarge one’s aquaintance and allow you to keep a superficial level of friendship with individuals you do not otherwise know. Real friends are there anyway, phony friends are not there, but what about this huge aquaintance?
    From the past, only a few prolific letter-writers and old-fashioned business types broadcasters can approach the historic levels of aquaintance reached by today’s friend-collectors on SNTs.
    There’s something diffrerent about being able to quickly peruse a whole social network through your own friends and your friends’ friends, at a glance, that seems impossible to copy in real life. you could not go out enough.
    The concentrated networks of real friends and their shifting alliances with aquaintances, and the groups and fads, that pass through Facebook allow you to take personal and very public social surveys of lots of people from different backgrounds, are completely new.
    I think my real friends are the kind of people drawn to that capablility!

    Comment by Sean Bell — September 11, 2007 @ 12:38 pm |Reply

  2. Thanks Sean I think you’re onto something with your historic levels of acquaintance. When we were discussing this on the facebook group (Facebook Salon), Dan Travis noted that facebook helps “ease the pain of realising that we are not the celebrities we want to be.”

    I think it’s worth entertaining a radical alternative to this proposition. Let’s assume celebrities and celebrity culture exists because it fulfils a real need. I think this need is bound up with a general sense of dislocation and unease with one’s place in the world. A need to hold onto some continuity even if it’s only which C-lister has been dropped from an advertising campaign …

    Now the radical proposition is this. Maybe with SNTs we don’t need celebrities to play the role of intermediaries any more. We can be our own celebrities at the centre of a network of acquaintance.

    Of course its unlikely this can really deal with the underlying sense of unease and dislocation.

    Comment by theuth — September 11, 2007 @ 1:25 pm |Reply

  3. Celebrity makes an uneasy alternative to the social self. Tracking celebs in media land is one thing, celebrating one’s own self is another kind of thing.
    The relationship between them may be: When I see Charlotte Church’s interview about how anti-celeb she is, I think: Yes, if I was a celeb, I would be spending all my money on my friends.
    Then I see John Travolta has a house like Dr No’s and airplanes parked in his drive, I think: Oh, I was a celeb, I’d do conspicuous consumption and saunas.
    On facebook, my own self can display the kinds of attitudes I may notice in myself from camparing myself with celebs, but I then actually go and compare myself with the people I think are cool.
    There’s maybe Tequilla the stripper on MySpace, but there aren’t any Facebook celebrities, are there?
    I am surely not alone when I envy Charlotte and John’s money, talents and success, but not their lives or their celebrity. Charlotte lives in Wales and John’s a Scientologist, so I don’t envy them as I might envy some ‘face’ with an apparently perfect life.

    Comment by Sean Bell — September 14, 2007 @ 11:06 am |Reply

  4. Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

    Comment by James — September 18, 2008 @ 6:05 pm |Reply

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