Has Facebook Killed Friendship?

Written by Ryan Cormier


As a consequence of making it easier than ever to connect with friends online, Facebook has blurred the line between "friend" and "connection." This has me wondering... has the social network irreversibly altered traditional friendships as we know them?In order to answer this question, we must first define friendship. A quick Google of "friendship definition" yields the following result:

friendship definition

What stands out to me are the following synonyms:

  • Close relationship
  • Mutual attachment
  • Bond
  • Union
  • Harmony
  • Understanding

Each of these synonyms carries with it tremendous significance. To be someone's friend is to be accountable to them; to be there for them. Friendships involve mutual respect and admiration, with both sides giving and taking equally over time. In my opinion, though: [quote]Interpersonal communication is the most important component of a true friendship.[/quote] That right there - interpersonal communication - is where I think Facebook is destroying friendships. 

Allow me to explain:

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that human beings can maintain stable social relationships with a limited number of individuals. Dunbar's theory, now commonly referred to as "Dunbar's Number," suggests that, on average, humans can maintain 150 stable social relationships at a time - any more and things become unmanageable. If you read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, you're already well aware of this principle.

So how is it that - at the time of writing this - I'm "friends" with 949 people on Facebook? Has Facebook somehow enabled me to cheat Dunbar's theory? Or has social media made it possible for humans to maintain thousands of friendships at once by organizing them online and on our smartphones? 

Not a chance.

To me, the only reason I'm able to maintain 949 "friendships" on Facebook is that I've diluted the quality of each relationship to accommodate higher volume. I know less and less about each person, and my personal interactions with each of my "friends" have become so sparse and insignificant that I'm suddenly able to keep up with the goings on of nearly 1,000 other human beings - all by checking my News Feed and updating my status each day. It's like friendship magic!

Why do we maintain so many social "friendships?"

Below are a few reasons I know persuade me to hold onto "friendships" with individuals I no longer keep in touch with (or would even care to talk to on a regular basis). Can you identify with any of these?

  • Human empathy - nobody really wants to hurt someone's feelings
  • Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) - just like those daily deal emails hammering your inbox every day, you just can't cope with the fact that they day you unfriend your old pal Mikey from kindergarden, he's bound to post something epic
  • Narcissism - if we're being honest, it feels nice to know that so many people care about us
  • Clinging to the past - old inside jokes, thrilling team victories, wicked house parties and arrest stories are hard to let go of
  • Fear of backlash - if I unfriend this person, there's no telling what he/she will do

What can we do to save our closest friendships?

Trim, trim and trim some more. Personally, I'm taking a "less is more" approach to Facebook. My method for trimming my friend list is pretty simple: [quote]If I don't feel like personally reaching out to someone on their birthday, I unfriend him/her.[/quote] It doesn't get a whole lot simpler than that. My goal is to get my friend list down to the number of people I'm actually friends with in real life, not just online. It's a novel concept, I know.

But what happens if that number ends up in the 200-250 range? Nothing. At least I'll log in to Facebook knowing that my news feed is full of posts from people that 1) I genuinely care about and, more importantly, 2) genuinely care about me.

Plus, if any of the folks I've dropped along the way really want to rekindle our friendship, all they have to do is re-open the lines of communication with a personal message, text or, God forbid, a phone call!

Do you think Facebook has killed the traditional friendship? If so, do you think we can ever go back to the way things were, and how can we protect the integrity of our most valuable relationships?

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