I have 326 friends or is it 210 or only 40? It depends on which social networking service I log into. What is a friend in the 21st Century, or better yet who are your friends?
Webster defines a friend as "one attached to another by affection or esteem or a favored companion." Well I definitely don't have 326 favored companions, I am a bona fined introvert so that would be way too many friends for me to engage with.
Fortunately, for me I am able to maintain my sometimes shallow friendships under this part of the Webster definition: "one that is not hostile or one that is of the same nation, party, or group." This is how I would characterize most of my friendships on Facebook, Myspace, and LinkedIn, respectively.
TIME Magazine recently published an article that began by saying that:
Whether you realize it or not, social networking is something you do every day. Each time you tell a friend about a good movie, bore a neighbor with pictures from your kid's birthday party or catch up on gossip at work, you are reaching out to people you know to share ideas, experiences and information. The genius of social-networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook lies in their ability to capture the essence of these informal exchanges and distill them online into an expanding matrix of searchable, linked Web pages.
The statistics are amazing almost half of Internet users or 83 million people visited Myspace or Facebook, two of the most popular social networking sites. Both sites are also bringing in millions of dollars for their founders and owners.
A local newspaper wrote an article shortly after TIME's which explored some of the consequences of this boom.
It's common for users to create "real" friendships out of their virtual ones. For example, one person will see another is planning to attend a concert of a band they both like and ask to go along. Before long, they're hanging out regularly.
For members of Generation Y, this notion of broadcasting information about yourself in order to find friends is perfectly natural. One user of social networks called it "invited intrusion."
In his 2006 book "Friendship: An Expose," author Joseph Epstein praised the use of the telephone and e-mail to maintain friendships over distances, but said social networking sites "speak to the vast loneliness in the world."
Some observers think the digital age is promoting relationships of greater quantity but less quality.
Jeff Bardzell, a professor at IU's School of Informatics who teaches human-computer interaction, disagrees. As someone who uses and studies networking sites and interactive online games such as Second Life, he has used the technology to reconnect with high school friends and keep up long-distance relationships.
Rather than substituting for conventional friendships, Bardzell, 37, said digital tools are a way of maintaining "loose connections" that might otherwise wither and die.
"It's almost like your Christmas card list. That list is much bigger than the people you regularly interact with."
Many people using social networking tools insist that just because a friendship is virtual doesn't mean it isn't "real."
I would agree that this is the high-tech version of the Christmas Card list and in some ways provides more depth. Christmas cards might include a one or two page synopsis of the year with a couple of photos. Social Networking sites allow real-time uploading of pictures, stories, and information that would often get left out of the letter.
Browsing through my list there are people that I never would have heard from again after high school, college, summer camp, or whatever. This has provided a way to stay connected and have a "relationship" for the long haul. Who knows when our paths might cross again. A friend from college that I lost touch with lives in Minneapolis and we are going to connect when I move there. I would never have known that without Facebook.
I also use it to stay in touch with and keep tabs on what kids I work with at church are really thinking and doing. This can be good and bad! Stalking can be taken to a different, more passive level, which isn't a good thing. We all must understand the boundaries and realities of what we are posting.
I think this social networking craze is going to continue to grow and expand as will my friends list. I will try and expand with it!