Ten years ago, if you were to ask a random person on the street how many friends they had, they probably would have thought a short while and told you anywhere from 5 to 20 people in their lives were considered friends. Ask an average college-age person today, and the answer might very well be several hundred. The term ‘friend’ has taken on a whole new meaning thanks to the advent of social networking technology, and the degree to which our culture is now connected to the internet. Computers were just the beginning of our layers of connections. Cell phones, video game systems, and even TV’s are now wired into the net. Connecting to friends and loved ones who are located a world away is now instantaneous thanks to email, instant messaging, and web-cam programs like Skype. The past decade has certainly seen society become much more tech-savvy and electronically linked.
One has to wonder if all this increased instant communication has taken a toll on our culture. The tradition of sending letters and greeting cards has been overtaken by email and e-cards. The same sentiment is there, but does the recipient feel the same effort was made to contact them? If we want to visit a relative but are short on time and funds, we just hook up the webcam and have a family video conference. We’ll get to talk to our loved ones and see them, but no hugs or warm embraces can be exchanged. Can it possibly be the same?
Let’s consider the example we started with, a random college-age person today might tell you they have several hundred friends. If so, they are probably considering their online friends from social networks like Myspace and Facebook. Many of those people may only be casual acquaintances, met once at a party or social function where they swapped Facebook info. Some may have never even met face to face, since in today’s connected world all online friendship requires is for you to press “Accept” to another person’s friend request. In the process, the definition of the word friend has evolved from someone we considered close and shared real world experiences with, to a virtual connection who we may know very little about. Editorial cartoonists have even joked about our tendency to prefer online contact to face-to-face. (see fig. 1). All of this begs the question, is trading real face-to-face interaction for virtual friendship a good thing for our culture, or not?
Figure 1. A cartoon showing the contrast between social networking then and now. (Keefe)
As technological advances have been made within our culture, people have gradually embraced them and built a way of life around integrating them. For example, gathering the family to listen to an evening radio broadcast became watching television together. Our methods of communication and interaction adapt as the choices become more diverse and convenient. Traditional postal mail has become secondary to the instantaneous nature of email, instant messaging, and more recently, text messaging. Our desire...