The New Face of Friendship

In the age of social media, we’re surrounded by friends we never see—or even meet. Are we better or worse off?


The “friend” from long ago crept onto Roger Erik Tinch’s Facebook page unexpectedly. He was a menacing figure from an adolescent past, an uninvited antagonist who conjured little more than unpleasant memories. The guy was a high school classmate of Tinch’s, attempting to rekindle something of a friendship, apparently. But Tinch had never considered him a friend, on the cyber playground or any other. Yet there he was, in virtual form, awaiting confirmation—and maybe even validation—by squatting on Tinch’s treasured Facebook page.

“I saw this request, and it was this kid from high school who had bullied me. I’m like, ‘Why are you trying to friend me now?’” recalls Tinch, a former programmer for CineVegas Film Festival who is now a consultant for Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Still a Las Vegas resident, Tinch is also a designer for Drafthouse Films, a fledgling film distribution company, and curator for Reelizer, a new website showcasing the art of film posters.

Over time, Tinch has “friended” 720 acquaintances of all ilk on his Facebook page. It’s not a particularly voluminous collection in an era when many Facebookers have friended thousands of people (the site limits users’ lists of “friends” to 5,000), but Tinch was an early disciple in the cult of social media, having joined Twitter in January 2007. Today, he boasts a staggering 1 million followers on the site, largely because in March 2008, Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone included him on a list of 200 Twitter “staff picks” of users they recommended following.

So without question, Tinch knows and embraces the emerging social media culture. Yet, the recent overture from his long-ago adversary gave him pause.

“I thought, we haven’t talked in 20 years,” Tinch says. “You’re not part of my life.”

Still, these kind of latent relationships are just what shared social media platforms like Facebook were built to address. They provide a seamless online network so members can catch up with old friends, start anew and restructure relationships with old acquaintances and long-lost family members. Maybe you’ve never been particularly fond of daffy Cousin Eddie, or the kid who pantsed you during PE class at Pimple Prep. But why not click “confirm” on their friend requests, if only to see what these people are up to?

To do so doesn’t mean you’re actually “friends.” Right?

“It’s created a new dynamic,” Tinch says. “It would be really difficult to catch up with people without these tools. It would take much longer to do it, to get that sort of background information. This is historic shorthand, cutting through the ways we used to communicate to get this information, but it’s hard to say who is and who isn’t a real friend when you haven’t actually met them, or haven’t spoken in 20 years.”

And that bullying “friend” request sat, waiting.

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” — Henry David Thoreau

According to its own research and tracking, since launching in early 2004, Facebook has drawn a half-billion active users to its now-omnipotent website. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was Time’s Person of the Year for 2010, and his story has become the focus of one of the year’s most acclaimed films, The Social Network, which is up for eight Academy Awards on February 27.

About 250 million users log onto Facebook daily—a number equivalent to 81 percent of the US population and five times the number of residents in South Africa. The average user lists 130 Facebook friends. And using Facebook, an individual can actually quantify his or her personal popularity. Today a person can claim thousands of friends—then point to Facebook and Twitter to verify that number, even if half of the faces that pop up might belong to complete strangers in a person’s walkin’-around life.

“Social media allows for our collection of friends to grow infinitely,” says Michael Ian Borer, a professor in UNLV’s Department of Sociology, whose work focuses on the dynamics of human interaction in an urban culture (or, how people who live in cities such as Las Vegas relate to each other). “This is something that’s not entirely new, but has been exacerbated by social media.”

Borer offers that a person’s individual social network could actually be mapped out as if it were a city, with close friends occupying the city’s core and Facebook friends residing in the suburbs and sparsely occupied outskirts, depending on the intensity of the friendships.

“You could create that map, surely. You could go to the suburbs, to see who your friends are out there, your virtual friends,” says Borer, who has a manageable list of 250 friends on Facebook. “Humans have always had an inner circle, a core group, that serves to satisfy their primary relationships.”

As Borer notes, the cultural shift has not necessarily been in the nature of human interaction, but rather the way the definition of “friend” has been stretched to fit the advent of online relationships. “Friend” is now commonly used as a verb, as well as a noun; we may find a friend on Facebook and then “friend” them, asking them to acknowledge the relationship in full public view and in the parlance of the site.

“The word ‘friend’ is a tricky term. It’s the label we use to describe relationships of many types,” Borer says. “We have a friend at church who is our ‘church friend,’ or the friend at the deli, or in class, or at work. They are all friends in some way.”

Thus, the term “friend” is frequently applied by default when there is no better term to bestow on your acquaintance at the gym, the office or the country club. Are you really friends with your personal trainer, if you have “friended” that person on Facebook? Or the guy who used to be on a competing team in a bowling league? Or your dog groomer?

“In some ways, the labeling needs to catch up with the technology,” Borer says. “The term is almost a stand-in for when you don’t have another term to describe someone in your life. It’s created a conundrum, because a friend is someone who is close to you, who you are intimate with on some level and is a person you are familiar with. Can a purely virtual relationship be that?”

Borer adds, “Sometimes, friendship is like art or pornography: I know it when I see it.”

“To help a friend in need is easy, but to give him your time is not always opportune.” — Charlie Chaplin

In many instances, you don’t need Webster’s New World Dictionary to clearly define a friend. David Leibner, founder of the web-based company FBG Social Media Solutions, which specializes in social media management, moves the conundrum Borer outlines into the here-and-now.

“If you have a thousand friends on Facebook, can you ask all of them to come out to the I-15 to help you with a flat tire, or bring you gas?” he asks. “But if you ask, ‘Can anyone recommend a good plumber?’ You’ll get 13 responses, right now.”

A real friend of mine and also a “Facebook” friend, Beth Lano, has made such requests for urgent in-person assistance, or what she refers to as “sending out the bat signal.”

Those who have responded are often more than “Facebook” friends.

“I’ve had problems with my house, and thought, ‘How in the hell am I going to fix this?’” says Lano, who plays French horn in the Phantom—Las Vegas Spectacular orchestra and is the voice of KNPR 88.9-FM. “I was changing a tire and couldn’t get the lug nuts free, and two musicians in my neighborhood showed up to help me. I’ve been able to do the same thing for my friends, too.”

But the “bat signal” only works on certain types of friends. “These are my real friends,” says Lano, whose Facebook list exceeds 2,600. “I knew all of them before Facebook.”

And what of the generation growing into relationships that know no friendships pre-dating Facebook? In the coming years there will be a swell of young people coming of age who have developed most of their friendships online.

Leibner, for one, can’t wait to see how people of that generation relate to each other.

“I want to see what happens in 10 years,” he says. “Can true relationships grow out of this space and help you out in a true time of need? Or will people put time into relationships that fall short of that? It could be a false safety net.”

Though he is well-versed in social media, Leibner is nostalgic when recalling the methods of communication from his youth. “I didn’t even have a cell phone in college,” he says. “Now people are friending people in fifth grade. We’re creating friendships in social media that are replacing the insular friendships we’ve had over generations.”

In cyber friendships, there is an absence of visceral, instinctive human response, he adds. In person, the gift of wit can draw a new friend with a shared sense of humor. The same thing happens online, but without the same context.

“It used to be there was a kid who was funny in the cafeteria at lunch, and that’s who I became friends with,” Leibner says. “Now, there’s a person who is posting witty 140-character tweets, and who has thousands and thousands of followers. I mean, what do you really know about that person other than what he says in 140 characters?”

“Without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

Facebook culture has also forged complications heretofore nonexistent in human relationships. Borer says the roles people play in real life morph constantly, whether an individual is interacting with his casual friends during happy hour, or sitting with family at a holiday dinner, or networking with business associates at a formal function.

But on Facebook, that person is required to appear as a single entity. Typically, Facebook users must craft a profile to appeal uniformly to all facets of their personal and professional lives. That, or set up privacy restrictions to limit information shown to potential friends who might not understand or appreciate that appeal.

And friends, it can get sticky.

“The idea that we have a core identity is a myth,” Borer says flatly. “We have multiple selves and multiple roles, depending on the social situation. I might be a sibling, father, husband, employee, employer, and in life, I read from these different scripts. But on Facebook, there is no differentiation. It can become complicated, because all of these people know you in different roles.

“Personally, I have people I work with, my old professors, teachers, my core friends, my peripheral friends, other people I’ve met out and about, family on my side and my wife’s side. … It can create some existential issues.”

Such existential issues as sharing freeform wall posts with your entire collection of friends, only to have someone unexpected—like, say, Mom—leap into the fray.

Saturday Night Live effectively captured this uneasy phenomenon in a fake commercial for the “Damn It, My Mom is On Facebook” filter, an application—costing only $3.99!—to sound an alert when Mom leaves such wall posts as, “Who is your new friend? She looks ill.”

In the commercial, references to drugs, alcohol, sex and atheism—and opinions of any sort—are changed to meet Mom’s fragile sensibilities. For example, the faux filter can swap out the bong used by Andy Samberg for a saxophone. The photo in which a smiling Samberg nakedly points at his genitalia is transformed to show him in jeans gesturing to a T-shirt reading, “Moms Rock!” The comedic tension is drawn from the genuine discomfort millions of Facebook users feel when their “friends” include close family members and even parents.

In one real-life instance, where the identities of the parties involved are protected (not every detail needs to be public, even in a discussion of Facebook), a couple had been dating for months. There was talk of marriage, but nothing formal had been agreed upon—no one knelt in romantic soliloquy, and no ring had been offered or accepted. Then, without warning, an announcement from one of the parties went out on Facebook: “‘Charlie’ is engaged to ‘Denise.’”

Problem was, “Denise” had not agreed to be engaged—had not even been asked. Thus, she was trapped in emotional checkmate. To simply ignore the invitation would likely torpedo the relationship. To accept would inform friends that they were engaged—a premature (or worse, false) announcement.

Grudgingly, “Denise” accepted the engagement request. And Facebook friends of both the guy and the gal began congratulating the uncomfortable couple.

Suffice to say, no wedding date has been set.

“Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.” — Benjamin Franklin

Roger Erik Tinch is so devoted to building online relationships that even his young son has had his own Twitter page and website for a year.

River Tinch is only 11 months old. Do the math.

“My kid has had a Twitter account and a website since (LeAnn) was eight months pregnant,” Tinch says, laughing. “We put the newest photos up, and it’s a great way to keep his life updated.”

One can guess that, like his daddy, the 11-month-old is well on his way to 1 million followers—and might celebrate the event by taking his first steps.

Surely, little River will be one of a generation whose circle of friends begins to take shape on Facebook and Twitter, and whose history is seamlessly bound up in social media. His father says he plans to keep track of River’s life by reading those updates like a journal.

Tinch also well recalls his first tweet, from the deep annals of Twitter time: January 11, 2007. It read: “Packing up, ready to Sundance.”

One million followers later, Tinch had no idea how big that dance would be.

And what ever happened to the old schoolyard bully who tried to “friend” him?

“I blocked him, oh yeah.” Tinch says, laughing.

Even on this great cyber playground, age-old proverbs still hold true: Payback is a bitch, friends.

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