The way we think about friendship has transformed in recent years — the word “friend” is a verb in the digital age — and we would do well to return to first principles.
It is not all bad. Social media has benefited many friendships. Not only does it allow those who may not have traditionally been in contact to remain in touch, but it has also enhanced in-person relationships.
In 2010, a study in the Journal of Information Communication & Society concluded that “the more spaces the friendship expands into, the more intimate and rewarding it becomes.”
Email, social networking sites and communication apps allow friends to share content of mutual interest such as articles and videos, and thus keeps conversations going longer than they might have. Additionally, apps like GroupMe have given friend-groups a platform where they can all interact and converse 24/7, no matter their physical distance.
This does not come without consequences. Social media, in some ways, has trivialized the idea of “friendship” and made it synonymous to peer or acquaintance. In this way, many have come to value the quantity of friends, and not their quality.
“So-called low-popular users — users with few friends on a social networking sites — are influenced by the intensity of their perceived friendships — i.e. how strong they perceive their relations with their online friends. On the contrary, high-popular users — users with many friends on a SNS — are influenced by their online friends’ perceived coolness — i.e. how “cool” they consider their online friends,” according to a 2014 study from the Journal of Media Business Studies.
In short, the more “friends” one has, the less they tend to value the intimacy of their friendships. The stimulus and satisfaction that comes with high frequency interactions “in front” of large quantities of peoples can distract one’s energy away from less public but deeper interactions.
Building an online persona has led photo-taking to become a chief concern during most social encounters. Internet friendships have taken primacy over face-to-face interactions, and consequently, the quality of in-person friendships has deteriorated, as Ruth Whippman pointed out in the New York Times.
“Americans in general are spending less and less time actually connecting with other people. Nearly half of all meals eaten in this country are now eaten alone,” Whippman said. “Teenagers and young millennials are spending less time just ‘hanging out’ with their friends than any generation in recent history, replacing real-world interaction with smartphones.”
One anecdote to this de-valuing of relationships is to re-assess what friendship means. For Cicero, in his essay On Friendships, this began with a simple axiom.
“I must at the very beginning lay down this principle — friendships can only exist between good men,” Cicero wrote. “For difference of character leads to difference of aims, and the result of such diversity is to estrange friends.”
Immediately, one sees that a friendship is built on mutual-moral admiration — two people who regard each other as good and virtuous, and share the desire to grow in that realm. As for the nature of the friendship, he notes that its primary focus should be on the improvement of one another and not the other benefits that come with friendship.
“But though many great material advantages did ensue, they were not the source from which our affection proceeded,” he wrote.
In short, friendship is not a means but an end — it is worth pursuing and cultivating for its own sake. One should not feel the necessity of making a friendship public by posting and tagging. Friendships should not be pursued for the perceived popularity of specific associations, but rather for the joy of companionship.
Additionally, deep friendships are not built on simple mutual interests, but rather, friendships are built on mutual curiosities, passions and an attraction to one another. In most instances, it does not require effort but is merely an impulse. Perhaps the best example of friendship comes from St. Augustine, while describing his late friend in his Confessions.
“All kinds of things rejoiced my soul in their company — to talk and laugh, and to do other kindnesses, to read pleasant books together; to pass from lightest jesting to talk of deepest things and back again; to differ without rancor, as a person might differ with himself,” Augustine wrote.
One’s deep friendships do not number in the hundreds. They seldom reach a dozen at one time, and most often number only one or two, but that is most often enough because of how rich the relationship is.
By re-thinking what we mean by friendship, several benefits are to be had. One will lose the anxiety of not having dozens of friends, but instead recognize what relationships are most valuable and worth cultivating. With a fuller understanding of what friendship is, we can all benefit by forming deeper and more fulfilling relationships with those we care about most.