Friday, March 20, 2009
How Do You Value an Online Friendship?
In the mid nineteen nineties my wife and I were surprised by some neighborhood news. A couple who lived just down the street from us were divorcing. Not uncommon, but what made it surprising to my wife and I was that it was the second marriage in one year where an online affair led to a divorce. We could not understand the idea that someone would find, meet, date and then leave their marriage for someone who they knew through a network of computers and keystrokes.
Today, online relationships, including friendships, dating and even marriages exist online in large numbers. Have we come as a society or as individuals to value them the same as traditional relationships or do they have their own unique qualities? The idea of friendship is one that we have often measured the value of, frequently on a relational scale. “Close friend”,” best friend”, “circle of friends” and “a valued friendship” are all designations and phrases which have peppered conversation when discussing our relationships. Romantically we move from “just friends” to “casually dating” to girlfriend/boyfriend to fiancée in a socially agreed upon relationship intensity scale. Marriage is considered the pinnacle of a relationship between two people. Has the concept been devalued by allowing for allowing relationships such as online marriages to exist beyond the boundaries of the “real world”?
Having friends and relationships can be argued as a universal concept, but it is a thin one. As described by Kwame Appiah, “Thin concepts are something like placeholders” (Cosmopolitinism, p46), when at work in relationships they are thickly enmeshed in societal complexity. Once we dig down into what constitutes friendship and what escalates to a life mate, the concept thickens and is dependent on the context of the society within which those individuals live. With the advent of online social networks and virtual worlds, we are looking at a literal condition of a socially constructed reality. Given those worlds are constructed from defined rules and computational laws at their launch, this can allow for more visibly how friendship is defined and measured.
It dulls the value aspect of those relationships and reduces them to numbers and connections in a positivist fashion, separating data and value statements.
Technologies have sold us the concept of quantifying a relationship. In cell phone services from ATT Wireless, Altel and Verizon, you are given the choice of a “Circle of Friends” rate plan. In a humorous look at relationship ranking written into the 1997 episode of Seinfeld, “Millennium”, Jerry gets involved in a war over speed dial rankings between his girlfriend, Valerie and her stepmother, with each viewing the higher ranking a measure of their place in Valerie’s life.
MySpace, a social networking website launched in August of 2003 has a similar quantifying feature in its top eight friends page. It is considered a sign of how close you are to an individual if you make it on to their top eight page. Facebook, another social network website, was founded in February of 2004 and organized itself through city, workplace, school, and regional designations in order to connect and interact with other people. To add someone to your network In the Facebook world, you are prompted by question and function button on a web page, which asks if you would like to add the individual as a friend.
Therefore in Facebook’s world view, friendship is defined as someone who you allow into your network of relationships. You might choose to do this whether you like them or now. This simplistic idea of friendship is an absolutist’s view, with no regard for subtleties and distinctions. However it is also a very young socially constructed reality which will develop complexities over time.
When we allow technology to define the idea of friendship, interesting consequences can occur. Popularity take on a quantifiable meaning to the literally minded as the number of “friends” you have is a number listed on your profile page. Andrew has 109 friends and Steven has 354 friends. Does that mean that Stephen is more popular? Interestingly, it has been argued that the more friends you have the more you have devalued your individual friendships as if it were a thing to be parsed up and divided equally.
Social Network Architectures (SNA’s) reify (make ideas into things) the concept of friendship, changing a value statement into a thing that can be measured. It can now also be collected, rank ordered, contrasted and discarded. The first order of complexity beyond the single designation of friend being the only descriptor of a relationship is evolving through new labels and classifications. In order for these networks to combat the negatively skewed concept of a dilution of friendship through increased number, additional features have been added in order to rank categorize those relationships.
Certainly you can remain a friend on Facebook, and maybe make it into the top eight page on MySpace, but now you can assign someone to the ranks of Top Friend as well. This designation is visible to your whole network, so they now can measure where they stand....
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