At least, Jonah Lehrer doesn’t think so. He wrote a piece in Wired last week where he argued against the idea that Facebook somehow makes friendship thinner and more superficial; he cited an article he wrote last year about the whole thing:
On Facebook, though, the average user has approximately 110 “friends,” which has led some scientists to speculate that the Web is altering the very nature of human networks. For the first time in history, we can keep track of hundreds of people. The computer, they say, is helping to compensate for the limitations of the brain.
But Christakis and Fowler were skeptical of such claims. They knew that social habits are stubborn things. So they persuaded a university to let them analyze the Facebook pages of its students, devising a clever way to distinguish between casual friends and deeper emotional connections. After analyzing thousands of photos, the scientists found that, on average, each student had 6.6 close friends in their online network. In other words, nothing has really changed; even the most fervent Facebook users still maintain only a limited circle of intimates.
Basically, while it may look like we have a bazillion friends on Facebook with whom we interact very shallowly, the amount of those people who are our real friends is basically the same as in real life. I’ll say from my own experience that I use Facebook as yet another mode of interaction with my good friends. It adds another channel of communication to text, email, instant messaging, and good-ol’-fashion face-to-face interactions, and it’s just plain fun! I’d say it enhances my relationships with my good friends rather than taking away from them.
I think this just ties into the hubbub that generally surrounds the development of new technologies. We often don’t know how these technologies are going to affect us mentally and physically, and we tend to leap to rather extreme conclusions. Heck, back when bikes were first invented, people feared that the high speeds of bicycle travel would result in something they called bicycle face, some kind of distortion of the facial muscles. Maybe someday people will look back on our fears surrounding Facebook and friendship and see them as equally irrational.
Another, less serious reason I really like Lehrer’s piece is because he mentions Virginia Woolf and one of her most famous essays, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” I’ve become a huge Woolf fan this semester, and it’s neat to see her ideas applied to something as seemingly unrelated as Facebook!
(Photo by Spencer E Holtaway used under a Creative Commons license.)