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WSJ doesn’t get social networking

Posted by: on Oct 5, 2007 | No Comments

Today’s OpinionJournal has a column on the Taste page about social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Stop the presses: the “friends” you have on one of these sites may not be equivalent to the friends you acquire in face-to-face communication:

But as a recent study suggests, the multitudes of virtual acquaintances that people are eagerly acquiring are not likely to replace real-world friendships. Evolutionary psychologist Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University in Britain described the results of the study, which he presented at the British Association Festival of Science: “Although the numbers of friends people have on these sites can be massive, the actual number of close friends is approximately the same in the face to face real world.” Most people have five close friends; Mr. Reader’s research found that this number was no different among users of social networks. In other words, friendship in hypertext might provide the illusion of popularity and a wealth of online acquaintances, but online friends are unlikely to transform your real-world social life.

The author Christine Rosen continues: “Friendship is now about collection rather than cultivation.” And “Nevertheless, the use of the word “friend” on social-networking sites is clearly a dilution and a debasement of the term.” And

These virtual networks greatly expand our opportunities to meet others, but they do so by emphasizing quantity over quality. True friendship requires not merely connection and face-to-face contact, but risk–the risk of disapproval, of heartache, of being thought a fool. Social-networking Web sites may make it easier to accumulate “friends,” but as a medium for the cultivation of genuine friendship, they are a poor substitute for the real thing.

What an odd argument. It coheres only as long as you assume that “friend” is actually intended to mean the same thing in the two different contexts. But the word “friend” isn’t fixed even in face-to-face interactions, much less across computer-mediated ones. A few minutes of phenomenological research should dispel that notion.

OpinionJournal – Taste

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