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Is Our Online Culture Diluting the True Meaning of Friendship?

By Stacey Ross

A few years ago, I supported a colleague by spreading the word about a very special media day for her – one in which she was a big spotlight. With her blessing, I found a place in the mix: schmoozing with the guests as they arrived and taking a multitude of photos – all appreciated, and then some – and at the same time, it was fun for both me and the nice-sized group of fans with whom I went!

I'll cut to the chase: I remember finding it quite noteworthy that my status during the swarms of introductions and handshakes had been elevated by my colleague, who began introducing me as her "very good friend, Stacey."

Sure, it was a gesture of enthusiastic appreciation for my supporting her, but it got me thinking and brought me back to the "Love ya, babe!" LA culture I had moved away from some time prior. While I had known her from one of my circles, I had never considered us to be anything more than acquaintances with some similar interests.

Defining friendship in the digital age

I believe that a "friend" is someone special with whom you share a mutual trust and an emotional connection – a bond which entails an investment of depth and gratitude that surrounds your mutual core values, solidified over a period of time with a certain form of devotion.

One's friendship might stem from a common interest (or online platform), but ideally it would (or at least should) also stand alone, without it!

Well, the "friend in need" and "friends with benefits" concept seems to play much more of a pervasive role in today's world than I remember it playing in my networking days in decades past, particularly the kind I find in today's dog-eat-dog digital age!

I do not think a word is just a word. Today (in my humble opinion) we have been wearing out the word "friend."

Easy come, easy go?  Maybe not!

I propose that our over-dependency on the conveniences and perks of our shiny online platforms bears some weight on why the richness of "true friendship" and engaging conversations are being compromised. A recurring theme in technology is the use of text messaging and status updates as a primary method of interaction. It's less of an investment than building and maintaining true, real-life, heart-to-heart relationships. While texting can surely reinforce an already existing connection in a healthful way, it also lends itself to building "friendships" in which one foot can be in, and one out of the room.

I also contend that those who are being raised in the "digital age" will have to learn how to intellectually, as well as emotionally, distinguish the difference between true and digital friendships, and the road can get slippery and even messy without some forethought and early guidance.

Know when to hold ‘em or fold 'em

One element of concern is the practice of bringing in new "friends" into one's online circle without really knowing their intentions, nor even knowing them personally. It can be one of those determining factors that begs us to gauge how personal our posts and revealing our photos will be.

On the other side of the spectrum, we might find ourselves in the predicament of having too many online friends, and hence needing to determine if we should block or unfriend particular friends whom, for whatever reason, we do not want popping up in our streams. Some unfriending advice you might be privy to is that you don’t need to take the step to unfriend the person (unless you want to go that route), but, instead, you can hide his/her messages and posts.

Yup, "it's complicated!"

Faux friendship (or friendship lite)

William Deresiewicz discusses the shaky future of friendship on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth. I was taken by this radio personality's devotion to this topic, which he calls faux friendship.

He shares, “As for the moral content of classical friendship, its commitment to virtue and mutual improvement, that, too, has been lost. We have ceased to believe that a friend's highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction. We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support—'therapeutic' friendship, in Robert N. Bellah's scornful term. We seem to be terribly fragile now. A friend fulfills her duty, we suppose, by taking our side—validating our feelings, supporting our decisions, helping us to feel good about ourselves... We're busy people; we want our friendships fun and friction-free.”

This is exactly the flavor of various online private groups I have been a member of, as many who look for advice regarding their situations preface their insecurities seemingly to solicit only words of support and sympathy, to have a sounding board for their venting purges rather than have colleagues urge them to self-examine or challenge them with ways to take action.

A good friend will probe you and offer much more than words or tips on a screen. Stroking someone's ego is often a disservice, merely serving as an emotional band aid when often much more is needed. Facebook group support might feel therapeutic (and I do not argue that people helping people does not have great merit); it is not professional therapy, however!

In a very insightful post, Whenever I Call You Friend, Deb, aka San Diego Momma, shares regarding online friendship, “.. it begs the question of what is owed. And intention. Are some people 'friends' with others to climb the popularity ladder? To 'steal' some of his or her influence? Sure. It confuses me and I wonder about the intention issue all the time with online buds...”

Again, a friend in need.....

Call in an expert - quick!

I asked Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and TV/media expert on an impressive range of subjects related to parenting, teens, communication, love, family and lifestyle, what her take is when it comes to the concept of friendship in the digital age.

Her response left me in pause mode, as I needed to take my time for her response to sink in – so much so that I could only thank her and call it a night. (Barbara, to be continued, for sure!)

She shared, “With teens, peers are called 'friends' simply because they are texting and on Facebook.” Then she took that line of thinking a step farther: “Even more concerning is that teens consider themselves 'dating' when they have only been corresponding in the virtual world!”

True friendship takes work

Ultimately, maintaining a true friendship takes effort and compromise, and strategic partners or networking buds should not be mistaken as besties just because there is a strong connection online. I believe that a "buddy" or even a "close online colleague" is not a real friend unless he or she has gone through the friendship hoops in real life and is present through the good and the bad, the thick and the thin, the tweets and the deletes!

In the words of William Penn: “A true friend unbosoms freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.”

How's that for a tweet-worthy quote?! Tweet me (@sdbargainmama) and I'll be your best friend! :)

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.

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