Friendship Online?

Initial considerations At the time of this writing, the SNS Facebook (FB) claims that over 2.7 billion people – about 37 percent of the planet’s population – use the FB services of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Messenger. Such staggering numbers are but one marker of the explosive growth of SNSs over their nearly two decades of existence. As Shannon Vallor notes, our use of these sites is “reshaping how human beings initiate and/or maintain virtually every type of ethically significant social bond or role,” beginning with friendship but extending through “parent-to-child, co-worker-to-co-worker, employer-to-employee, teacher-to-student, neighbor-to-neighbor, seller-to-buyer, and doctor-to-patient” relationships – and this is simply “a partial list”.

On the one hand, the boons of connecting with one another through such sites are undeniable. Especially in highly mobile societies such as the United States, SNSs allow friends and family who have moved apart to remain in touch in emotionally invaluable ways. Multiple organizations – from student groups to religious organizations – have exploited the affordances of SNSs to bring together likeminded members and attract potential new ones). Indeed, despite the recent scandals and concerns surrounding Facebook, having a Facebook page for one’s business, political party, the local neighborhood improvement group, major (and minor) civil projects, etc., remains essential for communicating within such groups and publicizing to larger communities. Academics are likewise expected to polish their “social media presence” – e.g., a profile on LinkedIn, Academia, and/or Research Gate. These services are certainly useful for making new connections and perhaps gaining the attention of “head-hunters” tasked with recruiting people to specific positions. They are also becoming increasingly essential venues for exchanging both pre-publication and post-publication journal articles and book chapters – and thereby gaining still greater attention for one’s own work. “To be is to be seen” – on social media.

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Nonetheless, younger people in particular have been abandoning Facebook for several years – first of all, because their parents and other relatives have also joined. But other SNSs, such as Snapchat and Instagram, have flourished as communication channels that are more temporary and more easily secluded from their parents’ and other adult eyes. In this post-digital era, more and more people work to reduce their online engagements and time spent before screens. Nevertheless, it remains essential, especially for young people, to remain connected to their peers via SNSs.

At the same time, both individual and group privacies can be at risk in such sites. As well, SNSs raise the larger problem of self- commodification. That is, such sites give us relatively narrow categories for self-presentation, beginning with a binary choice regarding gender. More generally, the strong tendency is to give users categories having to do with our preferences as consumers (“music, movies, fandom”; Livingstone 2011a, 354). And this is just the beginning of commodification: especially in an era of Big Data and what Jodi Dean (2009) calls “communicative capitalism,” the data collected about us – from browsing history to entertainment choices to credit card use – are the primary commodities exchanged between such sites and advertisers who seek to micro-target us as consumers. Using increasingly sophisticated “persuasive technologies,” SNSs’ (and other) design aims to maximize our time and “click-throughs” – for the sake of more data, advertising, and revenue. Finally, as we saw in the classic example of Amanda Todd (chapter 1), there are ongoing cases in which “friendship” online can be used as a vehicle for cyberbullying of various forms – including forms severe enough to lead to suicide.

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