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The Changing Face of Friendship

According to a Microsoft survey of 10,000 people, of the 400 friendships we make over a lifetime, just over 30 are likely to be maintained and of those just six we will consider to be close friends. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents value friendship as life’s most important thing, over money, family and careers. Seven out of ten list losing friends as one of their biggest regrets.

“Two generations ago we probably would not have made anywhere near 400 friends,” relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam tells the Daily Mail. “But we are a lot more mobile now, we don’t live in the same town or village all our lives and don’t have jobs for life so we come into contact with many more people and make lots of social friends. The number of close friends, who we can really count on when we need them, however, is probably unchanged.”

Pew study Teens Social Media, and Privacy discovered that social media is changing younger generations’ attitude to friendship and intimacy, with most teenagers having hundreds of Facebook friends and little regard for privacy. Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA development psychologist and director of the Children’s Digital Media Centre @ Los Angeles, has conducted similar investigations. “We found in our study that people, college students, are not getting a sense of social support from being on the phone,” she tells CBC News. “They’re getting social support through bigger networks and having a sense that their audience is large.”

Intimate friendships, adds Greenfield, are on the decline, with youngsters deriving support digitally — in the form of ‘likes’ and comments — as opposed to physically or vocally: “The whole idea behind intimacy is self-disclosure. Now they’re doing self-disclosure to an audience of hundreds.”

Over seventy per cent of adult internet users are signed up to Facebook, and, according to Pew, users of the site are likely to be more trusting, to have more close relationships, to be less isolated and to get more support from social ties than their non-Facebook-using counterparts. Too many connections, however, can be counter-productive. A paper by Edinburgh University Business School found more Facebook friends equals more stress.

The social media site has undoubtedly changed the concept of comradeship. “Facebook places every type of social connection into a single ‘friend’ basket,” writes Jacoba Urist in the Atlantic. “….as seventy per cent of Facebook users are on the site daily, sociologists and psychologists are examining the link between Facebook use and changes in relationship strength. Facebook may simply prolong superficial connections that would have naturally dissipated otherwise.”

With that in mind, photographer Tanja Hollander has spent the last few years visiting her 600-plus Facebook contacts — some of whom she has never met before in person — to take their picture for an intriguing project called Are You Really My Friend? It has seen the US-based snapper traverse 43 states, five countries and over 140 towns and cities.

Only five per cent of potential subjects refused a portrait, while nearly three-quarters offered her a meal and a bed for the night. Hollander was surprised by the mutual emotional connection with those she had never previously physically met. “Can you really know somebody if you’re never seen their home?” she ponders. “To me, when I started, a friend was someone whose house you knew, someone you had eaten dinner with, but now I’ve realised that might not be as important to the definition of friendship.” Her exhibition will take place at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces