Are We Friends ... Really?

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted Friday, January 04, 2013 22:25 PM

By Samuel Greengard

How we view and define friendship is being rewritten at Internet speed. For centuries, people met at work, school, church, clubs, bars, social gatherings and other places where humans congregate. It might be a bit mind-blowing to a member of Gen Y, but this was pretty much the extent of one's social circle.

Social media has turned the equation upside down. I have a growing number of Facebook friends from all over the world—Denmark, Ireland, England, Spain and Romania, to name a few. In some cases, the friend requests grew out of conversations involving a mutual "friend." I also have connections to people across the United States that I don't know and have never met.

In some cases, I communicate with these virtual friends more than I do with long-time friends. I have always subscribed to the maxim, different friends for different reasons. But, at a certain point, one begins to ponder what affect this situation has on our thinking.

Can we value a virtual being we have never met in the physical world as much as someone we have actually spent time with? Do witty one-liners define a friendship as much as substantive conversation? And does the semi-stealth act of friending and defriending people online translate into a more callous attitude about friendship?

I'm not sure the friendship genome maps across the physical and virtual worlds all that well. After all, consuming an energy drink isn't the same as getting a good night's sleep and eating properly—even if a person has the illusion that it's the same immediately after drinking the beverage. Likewise, a constant dose of witty barbs and bonding over cute animal pictures is satisfying in the moment, but then the empty feeling returns when the e-drip stops.

So, we go back to the well for more … and more … and more. Meanwhile, we increasingly ignore those around us.

Try this: The next time you're in a restaurant, look around at all the people fiddling with devices. I regularly see entire families playing on their iPhones and iPads while they eat. They don't speak to each other. They seem to be immersed in a world of parallel plugged-in disconnectedness with the illusion that they're spending significant time together.

These days, we seem to be more in tune with people in another state or country than those sitting right next to us. Our friends have become our acquaintances, and our acquaintances have become our friends. And we wonder why depression rates are spiking?

Here's an idea: Hug your kids, talk to your friends and think about who really matters in your life. It's probably not the person posting the cute cat pictures.