advertisement
advertisement

The Meaning of Friendship in a Social Networked World

In an era of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social network platforms, what is the meaning of true friendship?

The Social Network

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two
bodies.” This quote is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle
who wrote extensively about the notion and importance of true friendship as a
determinant of meaningful living.

advertisement

Aristotle’s view on this matter stands in sharp
contrast to what is depicted in the newly-released movie The Social Network,
destined to become a cult classic, about the founding of the Internet social
networking site “Facebook.” With the advertising tag line, “You don’t get to
500 million friends without making a few enemies,” you have to wonder what the
definition of “friends” is in this kind of social networking context. And as
you watch the relationships depicted in the film, especially that between
founder Mark Zuckerberg and his network of “friends,” it is obvious that they
don’t meet the quality standards espoused by Aristotle!

In this connection (no pun intended), computer whiz
Zuckerberg and his best friend Eduardo Saverin, also a principal co-founder of
Facebook, become embroiled in enough fights, including a nasty legal battle, to
establish that there is not a single soul dwelling in their two bodies. The
notion of “friend,” of course, is used rather loosely in the online world of
Facebook. What do you think Aristotle would have to say about the meaning of–and path to–friendship that has come to popularize the new
millennium? Have we gone too far in our quest for connection with others in a
world that has become increasingly disconnected even if, according to American
journalist Thomas Friedman, it is supposedly “flat?”

And in a world of hyper-connectivity driven by
technology that knows no bounds, what is happening to true friendship? Is it
dying away? Or are the various social media “platforms” such as Facebook,
Twitter, and LinkedIn simply redefining or transforming our modern-day notion
of friendship? If so, what are the implications for life as we know it on this
planet? Will we be more happy? Will it promote the kind of meaningful existence
that Aristotle was seeking and advocating?

As I have written in this blog many times before,
the search for meaning is not only the primary intrinsic motivation of human
beings, it is also a megatrend of the 21st century. From such a
meaning-focused perspective, where does friendship fit in? And how might the
social media “advances” referred to here influence, directly and
indirectly, the nature of friendships between people and the human quest for
meaning?

To be sure, I have more questions than answers,
although there are some trends that are worthy of mention on the subject. A
recent article in USA Today by Mark
Vernon, a research fellow at Birkbeck College in London, England, addressed the
issue of the social media’s influence and concluded, “Just as our daily lives
are becoming more technologically connected, we’re losing other more meaningful
relationships. Yes, we’re losing our friends.” In other words, the joys of real
human contact are being replaced by electronic stimuli and shallow friendships, that is, “social connections” rather than the
kind of true friendships described and espoused by Aristotle. In our
post-modern society, there is evidence that while we have plenty of
acquaintances, more and more of us have few individuals to whom we can turn and
share our authentic selves, our deep intimacies.

Moreover, according to research published in the American Sociological Review, a highly-reputable
professional journal, the average American has only two close friends and some
twenty-five percent don’t have any friends!
We’re not just “bowling alone,” to borrow the title from a book by
sociologist Robert Putman, we’re effectively living alone in the midst of a socially-networked world! Now how
ironic is that? Parenthetically, this is an illustration of what I call in my
book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts,
paradoxical intention or working against ourselves. We have become our worst
enemy as we seek to navigate the sea of so-called “friends” that we’ve been
promised through Facebook and other social networking sites.

advertisement

Aristotle once asked his fellow Athenians, “Who would live without friends even if they
had every other thing?” Importantly, he believed that good friends were
superior to any material possessions one might have. Stop and think, then,
for a moment about the quality of friends that we may make on-line, such as via
Facebook, and compare this quality of relationships with other kinds of friends
with whom we have actual face-to-face contact–be it infrequent, work-related, social, and
intimate, perhaps even loving. Which of these contacts represent meaningful
relationships and, by implication, true friendships? Which of these contacts,
when all is said and done, really matters the most to you? In addition to
feeding your soul, you can feel a single soul dwelling in two bodies?

In his classic work Ethics, Aristotle also offered the following ageless wisdom: “The
desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.” This is a very profound
and perhaps provocative statement, especially in light of the powerful forces
behind social networking. (“What do you mean you don’t have a Facebook page?) It
takes time and effort to build true friendships; relationships through which you
are able and willing to disclose your authentic self–close thoughts, intimate feelings, and sensitive
vulnerabilities including fears. While a social connection on Facebook may
be only a click away, cultivating a true friendship is not that easy or
straightforward if you believe in and take Aristotle’s advice.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit
that I’m a “techie” (formerly called a “nerd”) and have been for as long as I
can remember. Among other things, I was credited by the World Future Society
with inventing the concept of the “Electronic Visiting Professor,” an
innovation in online distance learning when the Information Highway was still a
dirt road. I’ve also been a “Crackberry” (an obsessive-compulsive user of the
Blackberry device), and was an early adopter of the iPhone which now keeps me
“connected” to family, friends, acquaintances, and others whenever I choose to
let it. (Note the “I choose” reference; I am very conscious of the need to
manage the technology, not the other way around!). I also regularly use most of
the social networking platforms mentioned, explicitly or implicitly, in this blog article. Moreover, I’m very familiar with the propensity among people
today to share themselves on-line with complete strangers-as-friends,
presumably feeling safe in the deceptive shadows of cyberspace.

I also recognize that in today’s busy, fast-paced
world, many people are more likely to tell their hopes and troubles to
bartenders, taxi drivers, hair stylists, and therapists than they are to the
people who are regularly in their lives. In my opinion, this is a sad commentary
on post-modern society for many people seem to have drifted away from true
friendships and a sense of “community” and are now living very private, even lonely, lives. It’s time
to resurrect the meaning and value of authentic relationships with others. It’s
time to refocus on and allow friendships to flourish in meaningful ways, both
in our personal and work lives. “A friend is another self,” Aristotle also told
us. True friendships, which admittedly are a blast from the past, are not
simply a manifestation of what is being called “social connectivity” in social
networking parlance. No, true friendships are the key to a flourishing,
meaningful life, well-being, and a truly-connected society and world. Now would
you like to Facebook me?

About the Co-Authors: Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners
of Our Thoughts
(recently released in a second, revised and expanded edition) and Dr. Elaine Dundon is author of The
Seeds of Innovation
(www.seedsofinnovation.com). They are co-founders of The OPA Way!®, an initiative to help people “live a happy, healthy, meaningful life” inspired by and based on Greek culture. They invite you to visit their new Web site and join the “OPA! Village” (it’s free!): www.theopaway.com.

About the author

A proud Greek-American (of Cretan heritage), Alex Pattakos Ph.D., has been described as a “Modern-Day Greek Philosopher.” Also nicknamed "Dr. Meaning," he is focused on bringing meaning to work, the workplace, and into everyday life.

More