facebook connections: Are we confusing “friendship” with an audience?

facebook map of connections, plotted by Paul Butler

 This image was plotted by Paul Butler, an intern at facebook. It shows not continents but relationships between facebook friends. The brighter the lines, the more people are connected.

“What really struck me, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships” he commented on facebook recently: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=469716398919&id=9445547199.

“I combined that data with each user’s current city and summed the number of friends between each pair of cities. Then I merged the data with the longitude and latitude of each city.”

Back in July 2010, facebook signed up its 500 millionth member meaning that something like 8% of the world’s population now have facebook accounts but what does this tell us about human relationships at the end of the first decade of the third millennium?

I have a facebook account but I have never met Paul Butler, nor are we facebbook friends yet I know the following things about him:

He is in his mid twenties and has a cute looking girlfriend. He lives in San Francisco but was born in Nova Scotia.

Paul Butler and his girlfriend

He enjoys skydiving and running marathons and is inspired by American physicist Richard Feynman and stand-up comedian George Carlin. He likes the band The Still Frames and enjoyed the novel Barney’s Version by Canadian author Mordeacai Richler. His activities include drinking and running, sometimes at the same time [see The Beer Mile].

I don’t have any relationship with him yet I know these things about him. If I wanted to, I could send him an e-mail and request that we become facebook friends.

What this tells me is that today, even if you know what someone looks like, where they live, who they work for and how they spend their leisure time, you don’t have a relationship with them. In other words, they are not your friend.

All relationships are born from the interaction between two or more people. The exchange of views and opinions, the give and take that comes from realising that though you may disagree with someone, there is more that binds you together than pulls you apart. 

Have you ever read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff or watched the movie? The story of a relationship between two people who never met, even though it spanned decades. They wrote letters and exchanged gifts over time and became close even though Helene Hanff and Frank Doel [the Grandfather of my friend Ben] never met. What that shows is that friendship doesn’t have to rely on face-to-face meetings. Frank Doel died the year before Helene came to England for the first time then when she did finally, she became friends with the entire family and persisted until her death a decade later.

Facebook gives us the opportunity to be friends with people we have never met but even if we count them as “friends” on our facebook accounts, that isn’t what they are until we start interacting with them.

Many of the lines on Paul Butler’s map represent things other than “friendship”. Most of them represent an “audience” and while any performer knows it is important to have a relationship with your public, it isn’t necessarily a good thing sleep with them all! People often accept facebook friend invitations from people they don’t know, just to swell the potential personal audience who may be interested in looking into their lives and giving the minutia of their existence significance.

I think this is done out of the same motivation that causes some people to streak at public events or to take their clothes off on-line. “Look at me!”  They shout.

Facebook is a great tool for keeping in touch with our family and real friends but I believe that an additional motivation for most of us to keep adding entries, photos and video clips is to say to this vast, complex, anonymous world “I am here!”


About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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2 Responses to facebook connections: Are we confusing “friendship” with an audience?

  1. Julia says:

    Interesting, and that is just Facebook…

    I have dear friends via SecondLife.com, with whom I have chatted in text or spoken in ‘Voice’ or on the phone or Skype almost daily, for almost five years now. Shay is my ‘closest’ friend: she lives in Bradford, but we have not yet met. Patric I did meet, that day before the Funeral, and got on very happily with; but he had to cancel my second night’s stay in his spare room after the funeral, as his lover in SL (SecondLife) was madly jealous. He felt he had to send me home so he could spend ‘quality time’ with his mystery lover online. How mad is this?

    Fortunately, an old schoolfriend (we last met when we were both 15) kindly offered to collect me from Patric’s and drive me to attend the funeral. He had seen my declaration that I would have to attend the Funeral alone, on Facebook. Simon and Patric were delighted with each other, and look forward to meeting again in RL (real Life), but only if Patric can tear himself away from SL for long enough to meet real people. Simon is (and always was) a complete delight, travelling the world and wondering why he bothers. He suspects SL has more ‘reality’ than RL.

    I hosted a wedding in SL, and Shay and I agreed that the Bride was a male typist. They had agreed to meet at Heathrow in RL after their wedding in SL. A few days later, the Groom contacted myself and Shay, furious at his ‘wife’s’ deception. “Why did you two not tell me that she was a man? ” he wailed.
    “We thought you knew” was all we could reply.

    Now if all this was in a novel, it would be dismissed as fiction… The lines are blurring…

    All best wishes from Julia

  2. stevehollier says:

    True Julia, very true…

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