Random friends

by Rob Horning

9 July 2008

 

In a post from a few days ago, I wondered whether the automated friend-matching component of social networks would eradicate the more spontaneous and seemingly irrational friendships that sometimes spring up unexpectedly in real life. A recent German study detailed here (link via Rob Walker) seems pertinent to this question.

One year after they met for the first time, 52 college freshmen were asked to rate their relationships with each other. By a significant margin, the first relationships they made were often the closest.
“In a nutshell, people may become friends simply because they drew the right random number,” conclude the authors.

Maybe it would be a good thing if Facebook randomly dropped total strangers on your “People You May Know” page and urge you to invite them to become your friend. Maybe the resulting friendship will seem cosmic and meant to be, and Facebook could then recede into the heavens as a kind of divine intelligence.

Anyway, the study suggests that attempts to rationalize friendships in advance may fail to capture what makes friendships work, which may in part be an ineffable spirit of coincidence, hanging over and enchanting everything the friends do together. And even more so, a feeling that the friendship is authentic precisely because there is no good reason for it and no calculation went into it.

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