Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to NYC to spend the long weekend with a bunch of my college friends. Since school, we have scattered to all corners of the country (Boston, NYC, DC, SF, Seattle, etc.) and hemisphere (Brazil). But when our Brazilian friend comes to the US, we converge for a weekend to see each other and catch up. I also stopped by Minneapolis on my way back across the country to see a couple of friends from high school.
So I was fresh off of a week with a large group of close friends (who I have been able to keep in touch with through e-mail, Facebook, chatting, etc.) when I came across this article by Neal Gabler in the LA Times, which focuses on the difference between friend groups as depicted on TV and statistics about friend groups in today’s society. I don’t dispute the idea that people are spending more time in front of their TVs, at the expense of real interactions, and that TV (surprise, surprise) provides fairly unrealistic depictions of the real world. But when Gabler starts to talk about Facebook, I start to disagree:
“This decline in real friendships may account in part for the dramatic rise of virtual friendships like those on social-networking sites where being “friended” is less a sign of personal engagement than a quantitative measure of how many people your life has brushed and how many names you can collect, but this is friendship lite. Facebook, in fact, only underscores how much traditional friendship — friendship in which you meet, talk and share — has become an anachronism and how much being “friended” is an ironic term…
[T]he fact is that we miss the friendships we no longer have, and we know that Facebook or e-mails cannot possibly compensate for the loss…”
I feel like I read and hear things like this frequently: Facebook is killing real friendships, e-readers are ruining the reading experience, e-mail is replacing real conversations. And every time I hear something like this, the assignment of guilt amazes me. How did all of these inanimate objects get so powerful?
Really, it’s just the easy answer. Rather than accepting responsibility for the practices that we have adopted (helped, of course, by these technologies), we act as if the technologies leave us no choice in how we behave.
But that isn’t the case. Yes, being friends with someone on Facebook is not the same level of connection as being friends with people in real life. But Facebook can act as a tool for staying in touch with those people who are important to you when being with them in person is not possible, strengthening those connections and making them more durable. E-mail and gChat are not substitutions for sitting down with someone and talking to them face-to-face, but they allow me to maintain the friendships I have over long distances until I can see that person again. Reading a book on my Kindle might not have the same physical presence as a book, the well-worn cover, the dog-ears in the pages where I’ve saved my place in the past, but I can carry thousands of books with me easily wherever I go.
So when I hear all of these claims about how technology and how it is ushering in the decline of interpersonal connections and culture, it makes me mad. Because it isn’t technology that is doing this, it is us. We have the choice. We can watch TV, we can read, we can go out and meet new people, we can stay in touch with our friends across the country . . . but in the end, WE have to make the decision as to what is important to us. And if (as is increasingly true) your choice is to sacrifice real friendships and connections for TV or Facebook friends, you cannot blame that on the technologies that allow it.