When you hear a question like that, what comes to your mind? Do you start thinking through the number of people you hang out with on a regular basis? Do you think back to high school or college? Or do you open up your Facebook app and deliver a precise figure?
It’s not too much to say that Facebook has had a big impact on our concept of friendship. And for most of us, Facebook has had a big impact on our friendships themselves. The question is whether this impact on how we think about friendship and how we maintain our friendships is positive or negative. My perception is that opinions will be pretty divided on this one.
Many would say that Facebook undermines friendships. It destroys the meaning of the word “friend.” If I spent one evening hanging out with you as a friend of a friend two years ago, are you really my friend? Facebook says yes. If I choose to keep your photos and “status updates” from showing up in my “news feed,” in what sense are we actually friends?
So maybe Facebook works against friendship. Maybe it offers us a cheap substitute for friendship. I don’t have to put any effort into my Facebook friendships. Your photos are there when I want to look at them, but I can’t offend you by not being interested in your recent vacation, and you don’t even know when I’ve taken you out of my news feed for sharing too many political opinions. How is that friendship?
But then again, I’m convinced that Facebook does a lot for many of my friendships. A lot of people that I care deeply about would feel a lot more distant were it not for Facebook. When good friends of mine move to New York, I can still get a sense of what’s happening in their lives. I can see snapshots and video clips of their daughter growing up. I’m not seeing them face to face, but I can share in their joys and trials to some extent at least.
I’d say that many of my in-town friendships are enhanced in this way as well. We can share our pictures together, tell each other jokes even when we haven’t had time to meet up, and share interesting bits of the web with each other with unbelievable convenience.
The correct answer is both. Or maybe either. Or it depends on the situation. Or—and this one will sound biblical—it depends on your heart in the matter. If I want to be a creeper and live vicariously through the people I would otherwise have limited access to, Facebook will allow me to do that. If I want to stay in the loop with the people I genuinely love, Facebook will allow me to do that.
In reality, Facebook doesn’t make or break friendships. People do that. Facebook can’t keep a running total on true friendship. Our virtual friendship status may remain intact even as my selfish behavior hurts you deeply and challenges every meaningful definition of friendship. Being a true friend requires more than a mouse click. It requires love. And love can be shown in person, over the world wide interwebs, and even in the spiritual realm as a prayer goes up for a friend we haven’t seen in years.
The key is to be a good friend, whatever the context. Social media ebbs and flows; apps and platforms come and go. But love never fails.