Snarky Behavior

Five Degrees of Friendship: Part 3

October 7, 2007 · 2 Comments


Part 1 of the “Five Degrees of Friendship” introduced a theory that as we age, we experience a dynamic transformation in the balance of our interpersonal relationships:

“In fact, it seems the natural trajectory of the quantity/quality friendship ratio seems to reach equilibrium at college (when you live right next to or with all of your closest friends), and then steadily tilt toward quantity over quality (as you begin to meet new people via networking while your closest friends move on or away), until you reach old-age (most of your friends die off, and you find yourself in a “dorm for geezers” aka “rest home).”

Part 2 expanded on this concept for the age ranges of Birth — 18 years and 18 – 25 years of age.

Before I continue with the remaining age groups, I’d like speak (again) to what is being coined by Christine Rosen (and others) as “the new narcissism.

Certainly social networking sites are the most manifest representation of the “Five Degrees of Friendship” theory.  I agree with Rosen that the utility of such sites are categorically twofold: first, providing a legitimate networking and communications tool to keep people connected through time and space, and second, providing a quasi-public forum through which social norms are established, claims to status are made, and social signifiers expressed.

It is the second category that seems to draw the most attention (and cynicism).  Rosen writes, “The use of the word “friend” on social networking sites is a dilution and a debasement (of the term).”  She continues to point out that such sites are self-perpetuating because they instill a certain degree of anxiety if participants do not achieve a status threshold of friends.

Rosen then quotes author Jeff Epstein, who says social networking site “speak to the vast loneliness in the world”… “they discourage being shut of people (…), encouraging users to check in frequently, “poke” friends, and post comments on others’ pages.  They favor interaction of greater quantity but less quality.”

The italics there are obviously mine.

The somewhat cynical understanding of social networking as a global trend of people sitting around computers “interacting” instead of hanging out face-to-face seems to confuse the ends for the means.  At least in my experience, the reason that I “favor” online interaction is because either time or distance constraints make face-to-face interactions difficult to coordinate.  That is to say, I’m already sitting in front of a computer (at school, at work, late night at home, etc.)  So in truth, it’s not a matter of “favoring” quality over quantity… it’s a matter of “favoring” keeping in touch with someone, or falling out of touch with someone.

On the flip side, it is also implicitly understood in all communications that wall-posts are no substitutes for face-to-face… eventually all communications must lead to “hanging out”.

My other issue with the “new narcissism” obsession is that it places undue emphasis on the “self-promoting,” self-validating, anxiety-inducing aspects of the phenomenon, and skirts the practical purpose of such sites, (which again, is to be able to easily keep in touch).  Again, I’m not certain that social networking site induce anxiety so much as they provide an avenue to unconsciously express anxiety, except for the most neurotic people.

Bringing this back to the “Five Degrees of Friendship,” Rosen makes the argument that most social networking users coerce users into “accumulating friends,” and that facebook (unlike MySpace, which has a “Top 8″ feature) makes no real effort to distinguish the strata of “friendship.”   Again, (and I could be wrong about this, I could be understanding the purpose of social networking from a “geezer” point of view, AT THE AGE OF 24!!) users don’t accumulate friends as one might currency, but as commodities.  We live in a world where access to opportunity, although somewhat fluid, is still very much dictated by “who you know.”  This is the fundamental of basis of networking.

Social networking sites literally connect the dots between who you know, and you might be able to gain access to as a result of this relationship.  People find jobs, long lost friends, love interests, roommates, sellers/buyers.  Viewing your “friends” as commodities that might potentially provide “returns”may seem callous (and definitely reflects the quality/quantity trade-off), but isn’t that the where the term “connection” came from?

My point is:  at the end of the day,  I know who my “champagne” friends are, and who my “real pain” friends are.  I don’t need an online social network to confirm or validate this.  But I do need an online social network to keep in touch with people I’d still be friends if had we not moved to different cities.  And I might need an online social network to find a place to stay for the night sometime if I’m on vacation, or to help me find an apartment in a new city, or to help me get an interview for a company where a “friend” works.

And that shouldn’t be viewed so skeptically.

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