WhatsApp with Friendship?

Hurrah for friendship. This was one of the messages behind the heart-stopping price of close to 19 billion dollars Facebook offered for WhatsApp, the new instant messaging service. The galactic sum paid in late February of this year for a tiny company caused a global sensation.

First, not many people, including myself, had heard of this company. And then they legitimately asked how one firm with 55 employees could possibly be worth that much. As many commentators have noted since, the price has nothing to do with reality. More serious is the fact that all this wealth now becomes concentrated in these new owners.

Even more serious is the following question: What wealth has WhatsApp, like Facebook or Google, created for the rest of us, to justify its high valuation? Nothing, Jaron Lanier, argues in Who Owns the Future? (2013). Digital technology, he shows, shrinks the economy while focusing wealth in those firms that control the flow of information. It destroys jobs without creating new ones in their place. He offers the example of the thousands of jobs lost in the transition from Kodak to Instagram. Whatever we say about the future, the Internet has not yet created general wealth in the way that the invention of electricity had in the previous century.

As a person with a personal and professional interest in friendship, however, I wanted to seek a positive development in the sale of WhatsApp. Although I had not heard of the firm until its sale was announced, I did know of Snapchat, having been introduced to it by my fifteen-year-old daughter. (I worry how I am going keep up with technological change once she, my third child, leaves home!) As I was thinking and reading about it, I came to conclude that people are looking for vertical relationships beyond the horizontal connections offered by Facebook. Services like WhatsApp and Snapchat may be providing users the possibility of more immediate, one-on-one communication.

Facebook, by contrast, enables people to transmit information about themselves over a network of hundreds of “friends.” An efficacy of connection encourages an efficiency of affection. Within minutes of a posting a picture of your family on Facebook you gaze at the affirmations from across the globe: “Loved the shot of you all eating pizza.” You are swept up momentarily by the 38 “likes” that breeze by. But you are neither offering nor demanding much beyond phrases of approval or solidarity. Moreover, you neither offer nor demand reciprocity, the key to binding relations.

Yet, along with our horizontal contacts we crave the verticality of love. Evolutionary biologists have demonstrated that we are an affectionate, companionate species, hard-wired for deep relationships. But science is merely catching up with what literature has known for centuries. Our earliest poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in ancient Mesopotamia almost 4000 years ago, is a story of friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. It is significant and heartwarming that one of our first literary text is about the caring bond between two men rather than, for instance, about war. This says something about the value humans have placed on closeness. While the algorithm of social networks can enable a broad and perhaps cosmopolitan sense of belonging, they can never satisfy Gilgamesh’s need for Enkidu. This relationship is reciprocal and valuable in its own right.

But this sense—that friendship is a good itself—has been lost in thinking about social networking. Aristotle identified three types of friendship. The relationship of pleasure describes our acquaintances, the people we hang out and have fun with, our largest cohort. The second category, the utilitarian friendship, entails the people we work with or have a purposeful connection with. Finally the ideal friendship signifies a bond built by trust, love, and reciprocity. This relationship, of which we have only a few in our lives, could not, according to Aristotle, be turned into a commodity.

Yet this is exactly what Facebook does. Its ingenious strategy has been to take Aristotle’s first category, the relationship of pleasure, and to use it instrumentally. That is to say, it promotes increasing links between people in the name of sociability while all the time mining this information for future profit. While we continue to think that we are all friends, Facebook treats our revelations as revenue. For Facebook there is a purpose to our pleasure.

Of course, money has always figured in human relations. We buy gifts for our friends, go out for dinner, or on hiking trips, all activities that involve some sort of financial transaction. By partaking in them, we may enrich somebody along the way. But the activities themselves are private. Now the connection between people is very public and a source of revenue. The more we reveal about ourselves the more money we make for others.

The turn to messaging systems like WhatsApp and Snapchat may be a sign that people are seeking means for unmediated communication and reciprocity alongside with the self-broadcast opportunities offered by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The two developments go hand in hand.

This is hardly surprising. The more you push in one direction the more people shove back. What is surprising is the expectation of uncritical boosters of the Internet that individuals would allow their identity to be determined solely by the protocols of Facebook. Behind this technological determinism is the belief that people are clay to be breathed life into by social networking sites. Recent developments, as well as our most ancient poems, tell us that humans have an innate capacity for affection. And that can’t easily be sold.

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