Friendship As Media

[23 November 2008]

By Rob Horning

More of my friends are finding the time to get on Facebook, prompting various nostalgia trips as people from the past reconnect. This seems benign enough, but it’s a little strange that the technological means makes possible a relationship that everyone involved in was happy enough to abandon to the mists of time. It’s like Facebook has more at stake in that revived connection than the individuals reconnecting do—and maybe that’s true.

Actually, this seems like the essential bargain Facebook presents us with. It will facilitate our illusions of friendship and connection by making such social contact nearly effortless and highly insulated. We can broadcast gossip about ourselves and present ourselves in a flattering light and make contact with people we had forgotten about just by going to the site. It maintains our friendships for us by storing a configuration of the network of all the people who have ever mattered to us while exempting us from that particular effort that we had already, in fact, stopped bothering to make.

So we get friendship without the trouble of having to put effort into the relationships. It’s friendship rendered convenient through technology, and the convenience to a degree denatures the original significance—isn’t the substance of relationships ultimately anchored in the effort we feel ourselves putting in? (Or am I simply mystifying the ideal of working at things?)

In exchange for making our social lives more convenient, Facebook seizes the right to transform our sociality into commercially useful information, turn our relationships into market research and use that data to anticipate and shape our future selves with the ads it calculates that we should be presented with. It manages our friendships and then processes the data interrelationships to guide the process of how we subsequently develop our identities through its site. Since it is mediating our friendships, and in effect making the effort for us, it is also directing what the fruits of that effort will be, supplying the framework through which friendships develop and making itself the very medium of friendship.

At that point, Facebook succeeds into making friendship a consumption product, and itself as the service provider. The other friends we have through it, on the other side the screen, are the product it marshals for us. And our consumption of Facebook, rather than the actual experience of friendship with all the effort that would otherwise require, now shapes our personalities—in accordance with the commercial goals it has set out for ourselves. In that way, it isolates us more by promising to mediate our connections with the rest of the world. It deprives us of the option to make more effort, and make our social efforts more meaningful. Is this too pessimistic?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/66026-friendship-as-media/