Friendship and the Impact of Social Media

Image Source: Matt Blease

In our tech-dominated society, people are able to dramatically expand their social horizons and instantly connect with friends via the use of social media, regardless of the geographical distance.  While electronic communication seems more convenient in our fast-paced lifestyles, many critics argue that the fruits of technology can lead our friendships toward inauthenticity.  A study by Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology, theorized that an individual can only maintain no more than 150 friendships, or five close friendships, due to cognitive limitations of brain size, attention span, and the time to nurture the friendships.  Yet, social media has created a new shift for the universal idea of friendship, which was once rare and precious in ancient times.  

Bloor’s article suggests that social media sites open more opportunities to create new groups of friends and at the same time limit our time to get to know the characteristics of a few trusted ones.  Most influencers that I follow on Instagram have over 100,000 followers on average.  Ordinary people can also have dozens to hundreds of friends online without knowing each of them individually.  This is an example of how social media allows everyone to instantaneously increase the numbers of weak-tie friends.  Does friendship now transit to a contest of quantity over quality?  Out of those hundreds or thousands of friends on social media, it is impossible for a person to interact with each “friend” individually.  As a result, people communicate with their friends or followers as a faceless cloud.  

According to Bloor and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E), choosing to spend time with friends on social media decreases their guiding force in the development of our characters.  The potential of impact among friends is diluted when there is no deep reflection on friendships.  Especially with the rise of influencers and micro-celebrities on social media, followers can hardly recognize the blurring line between authenticity and marketing.  

Regardless, social media can have a positive effect on the level of self-exploration by giving everyone a free space to be creative and motivated.  A good example is the zero waste movement that was first created by Bea Johnson @zerowastehome.  The concept of limiting our daily trash and living minimally has been widely spread among followers and influencers on all social media platforms.  

People feel more encouraged and passionate about environmental issues while creating posts and sharing comments on the virtual community.  It is true that there is not much time for influencers to know each follower individually, but the community that they have started has a strong impact on people in the light of environmental knowledge and conscious lifestyles.

It is undeniable that friendship has always been changing, perhaps devolving from face-to-face communication to electronic interaction.  Investing more time in the virtual world can influence our friendships to be less authentic and more superficial.  The modern society and the fruits of technology will continue to shape our definition of friendship and what friendship is for, if it has to be “for something” at all.

Reading materials:
Chris Bloor, "What are friends for?"
William Deresiewicz, "Faux Friendship"

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