For more than fifteen years I have been just to the right of the “cutting edge” in technology. Coming from a small town, internet service was something only a few families had in 1996, and the term “Social Media” would still be years away from becoming part of my vernacular. Since this time, I seem to be just behind the trends in internet connectivity.
Cut to 2011, where international superstars like Justin Bieber are born from self-recorded YouTube videos, and anyone with a video camera and a certain amount of shamelessness can become a viral video sensation, or better yet, a meme. The connections people make through social media are great for touching base with old friends and sharing the work of unknowns like Bieber. However, as friendships have been a popular social construction for many years, we must wonder if society can adapt and change to the new definition of “friend,” and a completely new way of defining a society.
Websites like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace were created in order to help connect people around the world connect to those with similar interests or backgrounds. This is true in almost any interpersonal relationship, as similar socioeconomic factors are often what bring people together. However, these relationships have often been fostered through direct contact, either through written word, telephone calls or personal visitations. If this model for friendship and social interactions has withstood the past millennia of human interaction, how can it be maintained through impersonal communiqué as posted on public social media sites?
While it would be terribly dramatic to state that MySpace and Facebook have destroyed the age-old idea of an interpersonal and social relationship per se, obviously a certain change has taken place. Rather than connecting face to face, or voice to voice, our connections are mediated. We see the means of communication that sustained our personal relationships deteriorating rapidly. While email was certain to replace the hand written letter for reasons of convenience and cost, the art of written communication has dwindled to a few lines of prose posted for public consumption, coupled with planate smileys. This not only negates the sincerity of the message, but it also takes away the ability to connect on a one-to-one basis with the recipient.
In order to understand the personal value of a friend, we must look at the institution of friendship as less of a social construct and more of an intangible good which can be valued based on varying factors. While many people use the word “friend” with different intent depending on which regard it is thrown out, we see that sites such as Facebook are built upon the ability to “Friend” someone. The process of “Friending,” as it is called, is nothing more than clicking a link in order to create an electronic connection. People may extend this web friendship to those who are close to the individual, those who are merely acquaintances, and those who are strangers. It is the consideration of the latter two choices which boggle the mind at times. How can we consider someone a friend, a term of social engagement and relationship, when we have not spoken for years or, conversely, never met? Most people certainly do not extend the same benefits and privileges to internet pals as they would their “real-life” friends, but why do we still accept the term as appropriate? Why do we take advice from strangers when we would not from those close to us in the flesh? In a sense, Internet connectivity has created different tiers of friendship, thereby forcing the individual to assign importance to the individuals with whom they share connections.
While my opinion of social media is obviously skewed against the practice, I feel I am clearly in the minority of people in my age range. All of my friends have had Facebook accounts for years. People constantly send me emails asking to connect on Facebook to share. What do they want to share? Well, I’m not sure. However, the trend to flock to these sites has yet to show decline. We recently saw Hollywood produce a movie called “The Social Network,” which was based on Facebook’s founders. One need only go to any online news source to see the Winklevoss twins, supposed cofounders of Facebook, telling us of their legal battles to get a piece of the Billion-dollar action for themselves.
While these social networks will probably not go anywhere soon, they will eventually be replaced by something newer and more popular. Of course, by this time, I might have just convinced my friends that “Happy Birthday” posted on MySpace isn’t quite as heartwarming as the old fashioned handshake and personally delivered Hallmark card.