A Friend Indeed?

friendinneed

Today’s inspiration comes from a Boston Globe oped piece by Alex Beam who, like I do, is bemoaning the loss of meaning of “friend” due to the insane (my word) drive for numbers on the Internet.

The Russians used to say, “Better have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles.” Now that the social media hot air balloon has inflated the currency of friendship to its present worthless state, I’m brimming with “friends.” The lowest common denominator, the Facebook friend, might be better termed an acquaintance, a pal, or just some schlemiel you may or may not have gone to school with… Your cousin knew my sister, I think. At Harvard; or was it Howard? We’re friends!

The subject of the diminishment of “friend” has interested me for some years. I posted a blog back in May 2010 in which I calculated the value of a friend was 37¢, based on an offer from Burger King to exchange a voucher for a hamburger for defriending 10 names from your list. The value, according to Beam, has hugely decreased. It is possible to purchase a passel of friends for very little. I did a bit of surfing to see what the current price is. Socialyup.com offers packages of varying size. For only $190.00 and a wait of 6-8 weeks, you can add 10,000 friends to your list. That’s just 19¢ per friend, about half of what Burger King offer implied. Social Yup guarantees that the names are genuine, not fakes. Fine and dandy, but the real meaning of friend is completely fake.

Words take on their meaning from the actions they produce. Friends, until Facebook changed the meaning, were real live human beings that one trusted with his or her innermost secrets and enjoyed sharing experiences with. Facebook “friends” are just one example of what is happening. You can purchase all sorts of things indicating approval of your presence on the web. Beam continues:

Over at WeSellLikes.com (“Give your Facebook page an uplift!”), I can buy 10,000 Facebook “likes” for $350. Twitter followers are a lot cheaper. An Indonesian gentleman sells 1,000 fans for $10, and a million for $600. So for about the cost of a high-end tablet computer, my 222-person Twitter account could swell to Pamela Anderson-like (995,000) proportions… . While you and I may have trouble distinguishing fact from fancy on the Internets, clearer-eyed people don’t. Last month, the web consulting firm Incapsula revealed that 61 percent of web traffic “was generated by non-human entities” called bots. Atlantic magazine writer Alexis Madrigal quickly dubbed this the “Internet of Thingies,” and helpfully demonstrated how the most ignorant layperson could quickly assemble a program to visit your Web page 100,000 times.

I am pretty happy with the 30 or so faithful followers of my blog and am truly ecstatic when the number jumps to 80 or 90. It seems better to have a truthful measure of how I am doing rather than some artificial report. Artificial fans (likes) and web visitors cannot spread the words I create every few days or so. Artificial friends cannot provide what true friends do. Without genuine friends, life can get pretty lonely and bleak. It is the quality of friendship, not the quantity of friends, that enriches one’s life and contributes to flourishing. Many call their spouses their best friends as well as their lovers.

The internet and its social media are rapidly diminishing the meaning and value of “friend,” “follower,”and “like.” All these three words are connected to the idea of relationship. Relationships with others and with the world writ large are the heart of being and flourishing. We have already lost much of our ability to be (flourish) to modernity and its technologies and technocratic way of thinking. There is no way that we can buy it back although market aficionados would argue that there is someone out there who will sell it to us. Beam writes today with his tongue stuck a bit in his cheek, but ends with a trenchant quote from Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed.” Hail the Sage of Concord! He anticipated the Internet.

Image: “A Friend in Need” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

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