A Friend, Indeed?

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This story is from today’s New York Times. I encourage you to read the whole article. But here is the part that woke me up today.

Facebook, the very popular social networking program, has spawned some new language—defriending or unfriending. It has become so easy to accumulate a very long list of facebook friends that paring down that list has become a social puzzle. Burger King saw an opportunity to attract business by offering a free Whopperâ„¢ to anyone that got rid of 10 friends by deleting them from the list. If Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, what might he have done faced with this offer? Burger King has ended the program, but not until they terminated around 234,000 friendships.

I have been ranting about technology getting in the way of authentic human relationships, and this article adds much fuel to this fire. The willingness of people to terminate a friend with a click begs the age-old question of what are friends for. In the setting I grew up in, this was an offer to be present for your comrade, and offer aid and support for whatever troubles have arisen or share the joy of some happening. My criticism of technology in general and this kind of shoddy relationship is two-fold. It always diminishes the meaning of the relationship and also cheapens the language we use to describe the relationship.

Friends play an important role on everyone’s lives. They are represent more than bonds formed by familial ties. One’s spouse can be only a spouse, but often, not always, also becomes one’s [best] friend.

When terminating a friend is reduced to a formula, the terminator (I can’t but blanch at these words. They are so devoid of warm or fuzzy feelings) has become a click machine, much as Arnold Schwartzenegger played his role in the Terminator series. But here it is being played out for real.

Mr. Schiff, 25, said he experienced only the slightest guilt at eliminating those people. While he didn’t feel the need to write to them individually to explain things, he did use his personal blog to address them en masse.

“Let’s be honest here, questionable Facebook friend,” he wrote. “We’ve been keeping you around all this time because we’d just feel bad if you ever found out that you got the ax. It’s just, well, up until now nobody offered us a Whopper in exchange for your feelings.”

This was just the sort of sentiment that Burger King and its advertising agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, were aiming to evoke when they set up the campaign. Burger King decided that it would do the talking for this article rather than its agency and delegated the task to Brian Gies, a vice president of marketing who said he was not a member of Facebook and therefore had not participated in the “Whopper Sacrifice.”

Mr. Gies explained the marketing team’s thinking about Facebook. “It seemed to us that it quickly evolved from quality of friends to quantity,” he said, “which was interesting to us because it felt like the virtual definition of a friend became something different than the friends that you’d want to hang out with.”

I’m much too old to replace my social network—built over a lifetime of relationships the hard way: one at a time—with a technological construct of what friends mean. Now that children start at a very early age to build their worlds around technologies like Facebook, will they ever understand what friendship is. Can quantity ever trump quality? (Graphic credit: Shaun Handyside)

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