Among the aspects of life it has irretrievably transformed, the Internet has perhaps had the most profound impact on human interaction. Through services we term “social media”, the Internet has expanded the scope of communication so much so that it is possible for us to know what is constantly going on in the lives of people we cannot, for whatever reason, meet face-to-face.
It is difficult to imagine a world before Facebook. The friendships it enables are now the ultimate arbiter of our popularity. Each person’s Facebook number – the number of friends on the network – is the yardstick along which our social success is measured. I have more than 500 friends on Facebook, some of whom I have never spoken to, and many more I have met only once and will probably never see again. But I continue, like some sort of an addict, to accumulate people online.
Are these expanded networks a sign that our species, the cybersapien, is becoming even more of a social animal? Or are they troubling evidence of our increasing distance, physical and emotional, from each other due to our deepening relationships with our electronic devices, portable or not.
An evolutionary psychologist at Oxford, Robin Dunbar, found earlier this month that of an average user’s 150 Facebook friends, only 14 – called the sympathy group – would sympathise with her, and she would only call on four – referred to as the support clique – in a crisis. It seems that “liking” posts on the social network does not a strong bond make.
But are promiscuous frienders – those who insist on adding people they met briefly as friends on Facebook – unaware that the ties that bind them to their impressive list of friends are inherently weak?
Dunbar’s findings are interesting. He discovered that though teenagers tend to overestimate the quality of their friendships, adults are “more attuned to the nuances” of relationships and would demote their FFFs – Facebook Friends Forever – to acquaintances if they were able to do so.
Several studies have found that the more time a person spends on Facebook, the unhappier she gets. Academia supports the intuitive conclusion that at the root of this loneliness are feelings of envy caused by the constant confrontation with other people’s (perceived) happiness and success. Because the points of comparison are like-minded individuals, their achievements can hit even harder, say psychologists.
We learn through regular, even compulsive, use of Facebook that our friends feel as compelled as we do to maintain the image we assiduously curate of ourselves. On Facebook, we present the versions of ourselves we desperately wish were real. This is not for the handful of acquaintances we bump into in real life, but for the hundreds of quasi-strangers we have contrived to accumulate.
Given its ubiquity, even our disengagement from Facebook is a statement like “I don’t even own a TV” was before the Internet took over the world.
So why, then, do we persist in sharing our lives – photographs, thoughts and emotions – with near-complete strangers? Why is this pursuit of social capital so enticing even though most of us know how hollow it is and how it can amplify social isolation?
This is perhaps because as with all things Facebook, the corollary is also true: It makes us happier. A 2009 study found that Facebook increases social trust and engagement because our brains are wired to share. By letting us indulge that drive, Facebook and other social media gives us a psychological and physiological rush. Social connections can even provide a buffer against pain and stress. This can be addictive and could explain why we want to keep adding to our friends list.
Still, Dunbar’s research supports what we instinctively know: Facebook interactions are not a substitute for face-to-face meetings. They can supplement, but not supplant, if we are still interested in cultivating the support clique-kind of friendships.
For Aristotle, the fullness of human relationships can be realised chiefly through “complete” friendships of “virtue”, which require deep and constant interaction. Social media can be invaluable in supporting strong ties forged with “another self”, or a friend, in Aristotle’s definition. But perhaps, with its flat categories, Facebook has transformed not just forms of engagement but also what a “friend” means. And in doing so, it may be calling into question the Aristotelian ideal of friendship and its place in contemporary life.