Friday, 13 January 2012

Friendship and Social Media: Human Behaviour beyond Technology and Virtuality

So, I am back (more or less), somewhat delayed by a nasty cold, and to top it off, this is not the post I had planned to post next. But bear me with me.

Yesterday, I accidentally stumbled upon a youth column in one of Sweden's newspapers in which Mona Jasim argues that true friendship is not to be found on Facebook and that is why she has left. Now, granted that this is a youth column (I will return to some aspects with regards to that), but this is not the first time and place where I have seen this kind of argument posted. And I never cease to be amazed by them.

Why would social media per definition guarantee friendship, or exclude it? Or, for that matter, be the only factor causing inflation in the concept of friendship and what it means?

In my lifetime thus far (i.e. including long before the internet), there have always been people who have had wide circles of loose acquaintances and people who have had a few very close friends. In some cases these two types of people have in actuality been the same individuals. That is to say, the one has never excluded the other.

Physical presence (seeing a person's face, hearing a person's voice, etc) no doubt often makes truly getting closer to people easier, but when it comes down to it, the most central thing is to find a space (real or virtual) where each party feels safe enough to converse more freely and dare to open up to the other. That is it. Now why would this not be possible to achieve within the frames of FB's services? And why would daily communication with acquaintances (and friends) not lead to deepened relationships with them?

At the end of the day, I always get the feeling that people who write columns and posts like that mostly express their own inadequacy to interact with other people virtually in a meaningful way. Which leaves us with the question whether it is actually a sound basis for a general definition of a diversified contact medium.

Returning to the issue of the column in question being a youth column (this time), an old colleague of mine asked whether we really needed to attribute any weight to it. After all, it was directed to young people, many of whom, in his words, have an addiction-like relation to FB. However, even if I had not seen the argument elsewhere often enough before, I do think we have to question the wisdom of trying to get youngsters to abandon technology like social media rather than teaching them to use it constructively. This type of technology, and whatever follows it, is not very likely to go away. Virtual interaction between people is, and will continue to be, necessary in a global community. It does not mean that we cannot question how we use it, but the latter also requires of us to question if how we use it is defined by the medium or by ourselves.

Far too many people talk about all the dangers of virtuality – be it anything from wanton and wasteful escapism to criminally fraudulent behaviour – but few seem to stop to consider the fact that most of these things (sometimes admittedly to differing degrees) existed long before humankind entered the pathways of virtuality. Scams like the Nigeria letters are not new to the internet; the internet is simply a new mode of distribution. And there is a difference between the two.

Case in point, when I was a child, no one would have ever considered telling us that getting a pen pal somewhere in the world would be a harmful or wasteful prospect. In fact, it was quite often encouraged, because it offered the opportunity of us getting to know new people, and perhaps even new cultures in the process. Needless to say, really, the idea of pen pals is not entirely without its dangers. Letters can of course be used for fraudulent purposes, or for just wasting away precious time on surface connections. But then again, it can be used for deeper communication too, as ages of collected correspondence gives evidence to.

Perhaps Mona Jasim would have been better off showing her readers ways in which social media can be used constructively to communicate more deeply with people. But then again, as stated above, it may well be the case that people who write columns and posts like that mostly express their own inadequacy to interact with other people virtually in a meaningful way.

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