Who is your friend?

Yesterday was, so I’m told, #FriendsDay on Facebook. I’m not sure what this means, in part because I’m not on Facebook but perhaps more because I’m finding it harder these days to conceptualize just what a “friend” is.

In the week leading up to Friends Day (or #FriendsDay, if you insist) there was a new study out from Oxford University that says that people who use social media — and in particular Facebook, with its handy tool for “friending” people — have no more friends offline than other people.

This isn’t surprising, though as always breaking down the numbers is complicated. At the heart of the problem is the very slippery label of friend.

The definition of friend varies widely between different cultures, meaning something different in America than in Europe, Africa, or Asia. Then there are degrees of friendship. The Oxford study speaks of the “hierarchically inclusive layers” of our personal social networks. The inner ring is the “support clique” of people who care about you, and which usually consists of around five “very close friends.” This is apparently a hard limit based on a combination of “cognitive constraint (the product of the relationship with neocortex size known as the social brain hypothesis) and a time constraint associated with the costs of servicing relationships.”

Outside of the support clique there is a “sympathy group” of maybe a dozen “close friends,” then a social network, then a larger number of acquaintances, and then maybe 1 500 or so faces that you might not be able to put a name to.

At least that’s one way of breaking it down. Other studies use different labels and different criteria for seeing who fits in where. So when it was recently reported that 1 in 10 people in the UK say they have no close friends it wasn’t immediately clear what that meant. In a 2006 study out of Duke University and the University of Arizona, “Social Isolation in America,” the key variable for determing a close friend was someone you could “discuss important matters with.” These people make up a “core discussion network.” The results of that study were depressing:

Researchers . . . found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled [in the past two decades], to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

The study paints a picture of Americans’ social contacts as a “densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family.”

That means fewer contacts created through clubs, neighbors and organizations outside the home — a phenomenon popularly known as “bowling alone,” from the 2000 book of the same title by Robert D. Putnam.

It’s these definitions of friendship that are so frustrating. People like to speak of “social capital” a lot these days, which suggests a fairly utilitarian view of friendship. Such friends are people who in some way add material value to one’s life. They are people who can do things for you; as, for example, take care of you during an illness, help you out financially, or provide a source of free on-demand labour. Still other definitions suggest more of a psychological symbiosis, a network of people we find to be good company, something that is beneficial in many ways to our physical and mental health. Then there are definitions that stress the importance of trust. A close friend is someone we can “tell everything” to. The friend here may be a therapist, sounding board, or mentor.

All of this makes talking about friendship very difficult. What does seem real is a general though perhaps slight erosion, at lest in the hyper-individualist West, of close social bonds, and their replacement with ersatz, even parody forms of friendship like the “BFF” (best friend forever) and the Facebook friend. These aren’t “real” friends but are made to seem as though they’re worth more in some nebulous form of virtual currency. I wonder if, when the bait-and-switch is complete, we’ll be able to remember what being a friend once meant, or be able to get back to an authentic sense of self.

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