On the Digital Age

Social media: Counting your friends

One of the great benefits of social media, and the internet in general, is the availability of social groups. There's an unlimited amount to choose from. Many people belong to a dozen or more. Well thank goodness for that, because a previous technical revolution almost wiped social groups out. That was the TV. Clubs and societies flourished in the 1930s and 40s, and then along came the TV and everybody decided to stay at home and watch the box. So it's very handy that the social media revolution has turned up to redress the balance. Everybody is still staying at home but at least the laptop is on the lap and there's half a messaging conversation going on while TV fails to be demanding. It's an improvement of sorts.

For most users, involvement in groups takes up a minority of their social media time. It's not dominant. And most of the relationships within these groups will remain lightweight. That's not to say they won't meet somebody of the opposite gender (or same gender, let's be open-minded), like them intensely, finish up having children with them and spending the rest of their natural lives together, but still the majority of their group relationships will be lightweight. The same will apply to most of their Facebook friends.

The real world or old world analogy is a factory that employs a thousand people. Out of the thousand you might meet your lifetime partner, you're quite likely to develop strong close friendships with a couple of people, mild friendships with a dozen or more, and lightweight relationships with some of the remainder. In Facebook terms these would all count as friends, even though you might not know where many of them live or be able to recognise them outside of the work context. This doesn't mean they're of no value, but it does mean their value is limited. It also means the word Friend has a slightly different meaning in the digital world to the real world, just like the words Window and Boot. A social media friend can be the equivalent of a real world friend, but the majority will be the equivalent of real world acquaintances, which is a long word and a bit tricky to spell so not at all suited to the digital age.

One aspect of this troubles the psychologists. While it's possible to lead an adequate and functional life without close friends and with no intimate relationships of any kind, it's rather rare. The odds of a fulfilling life as a reasonable human being increase dramatically if you have a close circle which you trust and open up to and use as support when you're feeling down. These may include parents and siblings or may not. The problem with social media, especially for young people, is they may start to measure friends quantitatively rather than qualitatively, and get obsessed with the numbers while ignoring the depth of relationships. This can be dangerous.

Certainly it's provided an opportunity for some nice scary headlines. But beneath all the fuss there's not a lot of substance. Here's about all there is to it:

  • Previously we had close friends and casual friends. Now there's a new category, Facebook friends.
  • It's nice to get big numbers of Facebook friends, but most people still need a close inner circle as well.


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