What can we learn from eighteen eighteen-year-olds about friendship? Here are some ethnographic notes I made from a freshman seminar I taught this past fall.
My students had an intense interest in the topic. Having just graduated from high school and finding themselves away from home for the first time, they were keen to talk about personal relationships and social media.
Yes, they were all on line for more time than most thought was right. Some spoke of the dangers of “addiction.” But not a single one mistook the Facebook world for the real one. No one bragged nor was impressed by the possibility of having 897 friends.
Indeed, the question, “what does it mean to have 538 friends?”, that may have seemed provocative or profound a few years back seems bathetic now. The quick answer: nothing. It really has no significance. No one is fooled by the amplitude of Facebook friendship for the simple reason that students can recognize the difference between chatter and trustful conversation. No one, in other words, regards social media as an avenue to tenderness.
They all sought and valued intimacy. And they knew they couldn’t find it on a public wall, electronic or physical. If intimacy is gained through self-revelation, publicizing affection to the world was not for them a way of making and keeping friends.
The indirect message from my students to all of us who fear that social media may destroy face-to-face communication is to chill. After all, the introduction of new technologies, such as the telephone, has always triggered apocalyptic predictions about the destiny of human relations. Yet, in the case of the telephone, we can now see that it has helped rather than harmed them.
In a sense, our fear of new technologies mirrors our anxieties about art and a domain of imitation beyond our graspable world. We worry that these inventions may create a parallel, abstract universe that is dry, cold, and heartless. With some trepidation we see in them the age-old aesthetic conflict between the original and the copy, which today plays itself out as a tension between the real and the hyper-real. Facebook and Twitter then become for us two additional examples of how virtual reality extends into and saturates daily life. So it is right for us to ask whether they kill affection and strangle empathy.
My informants, however, hands down prefer conversing with friends in person or on the phone as a means of intimate exchange. They call or text. They talk with each other after class, on the way to the dorm, and at home, just like previous generations. Facebook has just added another line of communication without cutting the others off. It does not constitute its own aesthetic realm, removed from the here and now, an inhuman imitation of the lived-in world.
A few of my students actually confessed to writing letters to friends back home or at other campuses. (When I heard this, I was like, wow, you people still write letters!) And why did they prefer this ancient mode of exchange? The tactility of the letter, the sense that the person they love/like actually wrote it with her own hand, the recognition of the handwriting, the memory of the body, the scent of the envelope, the stamp, or the paper—everything, in other words, that the chilliness and sameness of the screen can’t convey. This in itself gives life to the old cliché that the more things change the more they stay the same.
So what was Facebook good for? Here the answers were predicable: staying in touch in a loose way with friends, acquaintances, or relatives. But this capacity may be overplayed for many times students confessed (as have my two sons) of losing touch with someone despite their being on Facebook. To my questions “what’s so and so doing,” the usual response I get from my sons is a shrug. You still have to make an effort to stay in touch. That it has become easier does not mean you will do it.
Others pointed to the usefulness of social media in organizing social events from parties to prayer groups. Not to be underestimated was the capacity Facebook provides to identify strangers. How did this work I asked. Say you see a “cute waiter” in a particular restaurant. You do a Facebook search for male waiters who work in the place and presto his picture appears. And here image trumps text.
Time and time again students said that they preferred searching through the photographs on Facebook to communicating with others. They confessed to spending hours gawking at these pictures, just like people in the past perused through gossip magazines, or pages of LIFE or National Geographic. Photographs of people partying, traveling, shopping, or at family events, seem to have a fleetingly mesmerizing affect on the viewer.
In confirmation of recent press reports, quite a few students expressed dissatisfaction with the shopping-mall aspect of Facebook, feeling overburdened by the sights and sounds. Others resented the publicity and actually formed small groups, restricted to four close friends—an interesting development in itself that shows the tight connection between intimacy and privacy. One had closed her Facebook account all together.
This small sample suggests that while we may be reevaluating the meaning of intimacy today we are not necessarily throwing it away. Some people understandably worry that new modes of communication may turn into a (hyper)reality onto itself. But my students know the difference between the actual and an invented world, as people always seem to do.
The more things change … the more things change. Yet young people still yearn for the real thing.