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The Fate of Friendship in the Networked Society

posted by:David Matheson // 11:59 PM // September 05, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX

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According to a recent study published in The American Sociological Review, friendship seems to be taking a hit in contemporary society. “Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than they did 20 years ago,” as Gary Younge from The Guardian (“Nation No-mates,” 23 June 2006) summarizes. “In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them. In 2004, it dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.”

There is at least the whiff of a paradox here, when one considers that the decline in friendship in the last two decades has coincided with the rise of the networked society. The networked society is presumably about increased connections between its members. Close friendship is an instance of interpersonal connection par excellence. Why then should that connection shrink as others grow steadily? How is it that friendship of the close sort gets crowded out by the many other forms of interpersonal contact that saturate the networked society?

In order for an interpersonal connection to take on the form of close friendship -- to move beyond the realm of mere acquaintance, say -- it must of course be of a certain quality. I wonder whether, when it comes to the dramatic increase of interpersonal connections in the networked society, we might be dealing with a case of quality-undermining quantity.

The general phenomenon of quality-undermining quantity is pretty familiar. It makes its appearance in my corner of academe every year when those first-year essays that try to do too much, to cover too much terrain, come my way. The advice I’m constantly giving out -- aim for narrowness of scope and depth of discussion, rather that breadth of scope and superficiality of discussion -- is really just an expression of a worry about the ease with which quantity can undermine quality.

Or consider the fact that nowadays, many members of more fortunate societies have access to vast quantities of food. You don’t have to be an advocate of the Slow Food Movement, or even a particularly strong opponent of its Fast Food counterpart, to suspect that there’s something about the quantity of food available in these societies that tends to sit ill at ease with its quality. Gina Mallet nicely captures the point as she describes her move from early post-war Britain to the United States:

The moment I arrived in Los Angeles, I forgot all about England and fell in love with supermarkets. When I stepped inside my first supermarket, I thought I’d fallen into Aladdin’s cave. I had never seen so much food in my life – even at Harrods – or such beautifully burnished food: food that glowed like jewels, food temptingly presented, even the packaging itself looked looked edible, and it was all so cheap. I was taken to the Farmer’s Market where big was extra beautiful, jumbo fruits and vegetables piled high. The grapefruit, I swear, were the size of basketballs, and the oranges as large as melons. They shone with cleanliness. It was hard not to be bowled over. At a coffee shop I ate a mile-high sandwich stuffed with tomato and avocado, a fruit that was still called an alligator pear in England and considered exotic. It didn’t matter that the fruit didn’t taste of much. Coming from England, to me the bounty was all, a horn of plenty. It never occurred to me that within a few decades, the supermarket was going to emerge as the single greatest threat to the taste of food.
At first, supermarkets seemed benign. They were so cheap, and there were enough different chains to provide variety. But then, as the supermarkets began to telescope into fewer and fewer and larger chains, the food buyers started to think globally. They didn’t search out toothsome vegetables to tempt the customer. Instead, they drew up criteria for the fastest-moving food and ordered it grown. Whole varieties went to the wall, and the supermarket began offering only a fraction of the accumulation of fruits and vegetables once grown in even a modest Victorian kitchen garden, with its supersized onions and giant leeks. The supermarket vegetable is above all telegenic and tough – like a Hollywood movie star. It may be that corn only tastes good when rushed from the field straight to the grill or pot; but supermarket corn must be bred to survive for weeks. Iceberg lettuce is the model of industrial lettuce because it stays crunchy indefinitely in the fridge. (Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004, pp. 233-4)

When it’s so easy to come by, when its quantity begins to overwhelm, there’s a tendency for it to remain at, or even degrade to lower levels on the quality scale. This is perhaps just as true when the “it” is interpersonal connection as when the “it” is the topics addressed in the first-year arts paper, produce, or what have you.

The technologically-driven interpersonal connections in the networked society are certainly easy to come by. Thanks to e-mail and the Internet, for example, I could reach out and connect with dozens and dozens of fellow members of the networked society this very afternoon, should I so desire. But the ease of the connections also tempts strongly in favor of their being both fleeting and insensitive. And it seems to me that close friendship is unlikely to emerge on the back of interpersonal connection when the connection has these features. Close friendship requires a less ephemeral, more sensitive connection.

Because it is so convenient, for example, the elevated temptation with e-mail (at least in my own experience) is regularly to fire off quick, frequently ill-considered, and even more frequently ill-formulated missives that leave the recipient with little reason to believe that they have been crafted with any sort of sensitivity -- care and respect for the recipient, for her convictions and concerns. It’s not hard for the recipient to get the sense that her connection with the sender is taken for granted by the sender. Moreover the ease with which interpersonal connections are made has had a large part to play in the lack of care with which privacy is treated in the networked society. Send me a sensitive email and I can all too effortlessly forward it along to someone else, against your (perhaps unstated but blatantly obvious nonetheless) wishes and very often without your knowledge. Be unfortunate enough to have certain bits of information about yourself on-line that you wouldn’t have there (were you to know about them or have any real say in their presence), and chances are that I can root them out with a few simple Google maneuvers. Off-line intrusions of that sort would seem pretty egregious. On-line, they’re getting so easy to effect that it’s becoming harder to see them as all that bad. The ease of my connections with you and others in the networked society lends itself naturally to a disregard for your privacy.

So maybe we’ve got the beginnings of a general explanation of the paradox mentioned above. The networked society is indeed about dramatic increases in interpersonal connections between its members. The high convenience of those connections, however, mediated by such technologies as e-mail and the Internet, tends to see to it that they fail to manifest certain qualities required for their transformation into instances of close friendship -- stability, sensitivity, and so on.

If this explanation is on the right track, what measures can be taken to preserve and encourage close friendship in contemporary society -- assuming we agree that it’s a value worth preserving and encouraging? A Neo-Luddite response would counsel us to cease, or at any rate severely limit, our reliance on the technologically mediated, easy means of connection. But that response seems to me to take an overly dim view of the convenience value of the technologically mediated connections. I like my email as much as the next person; I probably like spending time in supermarkets even more; and I don’t think the source of these preferences is wholly disreputable. Perhaps a better response is thus to return with renewed vigor to a consideration of the various ways in which we can help diminish the temptation to move from convenience to such unfriendly conditions as fleetingness and insensitivity, while still allowing ourselves the benefits of convenience. It seems to me that the efforts of members of the netiquette movement and of those involved in the practical evaluation of privacy policies (see here and here for a couple of premier examples) are role models of this alternative response. I, for one, hope that these efforts to humanize the network steadily increase -- for friendship’s sake if for nothing else.

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