by Kristian Fennessy
Facebook, although still in its early years, is the epitome of social networking. After being in existence for just more than seven years, Facebook currently has over 500 million active users in 190 countries, half of which log in on any given day. It consumes over 700 billion minutes of people’s time each and every month, and it continues to grow. After the addition of social plug-ins in April 2010, a feature that allows you to see what your friends have liked, commented on, and shared, an average of 10,000 new websites join Facebook’s vast network every day. You could say Facebook is pretty popular.
Facebook users are often identified as being well-liked or not based on how many friends they have. I have been asked in conversation several times how many “friends” I have. The average Facebook user has 130 Facebook friends, and many teenagers often have several multiples of this number in friends. Speaking for myself, I have 636 friends, and I have several friends with upwards of 1000. One could say that today’s youth are becoming more and more social, having many more friends than is conceivable. But how can one maintain so many relationships? When one has so many Facebook friendships, what exactly is the worth of a Facebook friend?
Many have a narrow view of Facebook, limiting their friendships to very close relationships only, keeping their friends’ list private, exclusive. Some may take this route to avoid being “creeped” upon by random strangers. Others, including literary critic William Deresiewicz, feel trapped, unable to escape the reach of what he refers to as a “constant stream of mediated contact.” In his essay “The End of Solitude,” he writes that the digital revolution has taken its toll on solitude, leaving people unable to be alone, and unable to avoid the ever present gaze of society, creating a generation desperate for attention. Perhaps needless to say, Deresiewicz has a dim view on the value of Facebook friends. He strongly implies, using often trivial Facebook status updates as an example, that having so many (532, in his particular example) friends leads to a lack of intimacy. He asks: “How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t all that friendly with even then) “is making coffee and staring off into space”?” (A News Feed is a constantly updating culmination of all the things that your friends do on Facebook). He also speaks of the lack of true closeness to others, saying that teenagers nowadays starve for the presence of other people, although in actuality, this presence is only imaginative. “Friendship may be slipping from our grasp,” he remarks.
In several regards, I agree with Deresiewicz. Having 130, 532 or 636 friends can make an individual friendship seem distant, not so important. I also agree that it might be hard to escape the constant bombardment of media and information. However, I am not so pessimistic about the idea of social networking, and I certainly believe that all 636 of my Facebook friends have worth. I know for certain that I have met every single one of these friends in person more than once; I know them. I don’t accept the random Facebook “stalkers” mentioned in the media and on the news; doing so is simply irresponsible. Having a Facebook account allows me to easily keep in touch with all of my friends and acquaintances, whereas if I did not have one, I probably would only be able to communicate with 25 or so of them.
Going back to Deresiewicz’s example about Sally Smith’s status update about coffee, I often find people’s status updates to be insightful, funny, interesting, and so much more. There are people in the world like Sally who like to inform people about the most seemingly pointless things, but that’s why there’s an option to unfriend people. If her status updates were always of this dim nature, wouldn’t he just simply remove her from his friend list? It didn’t seem like they were very good friends in the first place. I believe this is the trap that he and many others have fallen into. When one accepts friend requests from hundreds or even thousands of people you hardly know anything about, you’re bound to feel a lack of intimacy, and you’ll most certainly have a News Feed full of annoying posts! In this case, it seems that the real reason that Deresiewicz feels a lack of intimacy is because his friends list is full of Sally Smiths. Only his misuse of Facebook is to blame, not Facebook itself.
Another author, Sherry Turkle, also mentions Facebook in her book Alone Together. She has a more relaxed view of Facebook and other social networking advancements than Deresiewicz. She relates Facebook friend requests to those of the Victorian era, during which one had to accept requests for friendship, much like Facebook. She also mentions several classes of people on Facebook. She mentions those who try to befriend people who they are fans of, those who only friend people they know, and those who friend anybody who has mutual friends of theirs. However, she does not seem to form her own opinions on the significance of a Facebook friendship.
Turkle, however, seems to make a very subtle point about Facebook friendships. She repeatedly states that Facebook profiles are constantly being edited, screened, and touched up until they are perfect. One chapter in her book features several teenagers depicting their accounts of making their Facebook profiles as cool or as popular as possible. This makes sense, as everybody wants to be liked by their peers. Everybody wants to come off as perfect as they can be. I can’t help but think, though, that Turkle implies, although she never explicitly states, that friendships on Facebook are more superficial than actual friendships. Perhaps it is the fact that I also harbor similar feelings that I believed she meant to say this.
There’s no doubt that some people don’t take Facebook friendships very seriously. I often find myself with friend requests from people I’ve never even met, let alone can call myself friends with. Facebook itself can even tend to treat friendships a bit trivially. One common method that Facebook employs to suggest friends to you is compiling a list of friends of your current friends who share similar interests or who have many friends in common with you, and displaying them to you on your sidebar. Let us say you see that a close friend of yours has a friend that likes an underground band that you also find to be very appealing. On top of this, you have 52 friends in common! For many, this would be grounds for a friend request. However, I believe this style of friendship promotion leads to random and slightly insignificant befriending. I prefer to make friendships on a stronger basis than the fact that we have 65 mutual friends, or listen to the same band. However, this method that Facebook utilizes to suggest friendships can also be useful.
This type of friendship advertising is moderately effective as far as I have heard. Although I do not partake in the practice myself, using social networks (Facebook, blogs, and dating sites, for example) to expand your own network is very effective. You can meet many people who share similar interests as you, or people you’re interested in, and they’re all only a click away, thanks to today’s technological advancements.
All in all, I see Facebook friendships as one of many positive aspects that social networking affords us. I definitely don’t find them to be quite the monstrosity that Deresiewicz does, at least. Under the right circumstances, there is no reason that people should reduce the quality of their friendships to be more popular online. For example, although I have 636 friends on Facebook, it doesn’t diminish the relationships between me and my 25 or so closest friends. In this regard, I believe Facebook friendships are comparable to real life friendships.
Think about it this way: during your college years, did you meet several hundred people that you would say you’re acquainted with? But being acquainted with all these people doesn’t necessarily mean you know them all very well. Furthermore, knowing so many people has absolutely no effect on how intimate your close friendships are. The same idea applies to Facebook. It’s not at all to fair to say that when one has so many Facebook friends, one can’t possibly have close relationships. You have your best Facebook friends, you have your Facebook buddies, and you have your Facebook acquaintances, and there’s no reason why they cannot all coexist in perfect harmony.
Facebook. (2011). Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
Deresiewicz, W. (2009). The End of Solitude.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books.
I am a member of the class of 2014, majoring in Architecture. I was born in New York, but grew up on the small island of Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I lived there with my parents and younger brother and attended the Good Hope School, a small college preparatory school. My graduating class was comprised of just twenty students. The small class sizes allowed for my fellow classmates and I to explore our individual interests, and I began to develop an enthusiasm for writing. I didn’t take a writing class at MIT until my second semester, but after taking Writing and Experience, my passion for writing was awakened once again. I plan to take more courses in writing in the future. Some of my other hobbies include going to the beach, exercising, and listening to music. I am also a proud member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.