Question: Where does friendship turn into a thing? Answer: On Facebook.
I don’t mean that new digital technologies convert friends into objects. This would be a simplistic reading of social media. I argue, rather, that they transform our human desire for connections into a commercial activity.
Let me explain. Traditionally we have built a firewall around friendship, making the line between the private and the public virtually unassailable. Friendship, as we know it, could flourish in the realm of private feelings and attachments. Now this barrier has become so porous for many people as to disintegrate before them. Privacy, many commentators have noted, may be just another archaeological remnant of modernity, totally out of sync with the computer age.
This redefinition of the private-public divide may prove the most salient feature of our time. The Internet invites personal mass-dissemination either to Facebook friends or through blogging or through posting on YouTube. People reveal themselves to a wide audience of readers, listeners, and observers.
Not that this tendency is entirely new. Magazines and the publishing world have been offering us tell-all memoirs for years. And television provides staples every night of people who hoard animals, of family intervention sessions, or of life behind bars. We can get right up, close, and personal into the working of family dynamics and of the inner psyche.
But there is a twist now in that everyone exposes the minutia of personal life. People reveal inner things to the world: the breakup of relationships, the purchase of new shoes, or the hike in Nepal. Self-disclosure, the hallmark of friendship, has now become routine.
What effect does this have on friendship, which has relied in the past on the communication of inner feelings, dreams, and fears to the closest friends? Indeed, one way of solidifying a friendship is through mutual self-revelation. I tell you about myself and you reveal yourself to me and we gain each other’s trust.
What are the implications when self-disclosure becomes global? We are not really sure as we are just experiencing it. We are confused about the implications of digital communication on interpersonal relationship, as we have always been following the appearance of new media.
Some people worry that digital technologies undermine face-to-face encounters. These fears may be overblown. Since the advent of mail, communication has been disembodied, that is, it has always attempted to bridge the physical distance between individuals. Remember the pen-pals who wrote for decades to each other, often without ever meeting in person? Connecting through the Internet is not necessarily less meaningful or less authentic than connecting in a café. People can form links without being physically present.
But there is one disquieting aspect of digital media that is becoming increasingly visible – the commoditization of relationships. What makes this possible is the exchange among participants of personal information for the convenience of forging connections. And what enables this exchange is advertising.
As everyone can tell you, advertising is a major force behind the Internet, promising free content while promoting the ethos of choice. But the possibility of choice has literally put a price on intimacy. The impulse for profit, combined with the break in the fence separating our private and public selves, subjects friendship to a commercial (and political) scrutiny. In short, our desire to open up to our friends converts that revelation into a sellable good. A strange convergence is taking place now between communication, consumerism, and subjectivity. It’s not the self that is up for sale but the self’s need to touch other selves. In short, consumer culture infiltrates our lives through our longing to connect with others rather than just from our wish to buy.
While people reveal themselves in the pursuit of interpersonal links, data firms mine all this personal information for profit. What a diabolically clever strategy! The new social media then transform our need for human bonds into an opportunity for financial gain.
Now, you can say that human relationships have always been subject to the economic drive. Yes, that is true. Economic activity has permeated our most intimate lives, from divorce proceedings, to the sharing of households, to the negotiation of who pays the restaurant bill.
Let’s look at latter example: Having gone out to dinner, two friends now must decide how they will pay for the meal. The pleasure of being with each other was accompanied, in other words, by the exchange of money. Now, however, the revelation of intimacy in the Internet turns the inner self into an object of economic monitoring. Whereas in the past money may have made intimacy possible, now intimacy makes money.
Of course, traditional friendship is not dead, as I know from my students and from two of my own children (aged 18 and 21) who use social media extensively. People are able to stay in touch with each other, discover long-lost friends, and maintain social networks over vast distances. They can forge relationships that transcend physical geography. You can always find someone on the Internet to talk to you, my son once told me. This is a good thing and cannot be undervalued.
But there is an underside to this. In a recently published book, Alone Together. Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle interviewed young people who feel reduced to files. (The book, like so many commercial publications, is long on anecdotes and short on analysis.) They complain of family members coming to dinner with their devices on hand and going on line. Turkle’s informants increasingly feel disconnected from each other and prefer texting to talking so as to avoid emotional entanglements with their friends.
So much in our lives is now mediated by the new technologies from the computer monitor, to the mobile phone, to the Ipod. To participate in digital communication is to invest yourself with collective relevance. If you are young today, you cannot to escape the network. The freedom of the Internet becomes the only possibility. You are social only to the extent that you are plugged in. Does this make us free? Besieged? Or, both at the same time?
More important, do we have the choice to object to this commercialization of intimacy, to resist being monitored, to refuse the conversion of friendship into an opportunity for money?