Defining ‘friend’ in the modern age |

Defining ‘friend’ in the modern age

Rabbi David Segal
Guest opinion

As the classic toast goes, “Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends.” But that was before Facebook; now it’s getting harder to tell them apart. Are you a Facebook friend or a friend friend? Semantic confusion sets in as words gather new meanings, like a cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain, engulfing everything in its path.

Behold what man hath wrought: Facebook usage has verbed “friend” and nouned “like”! You can friend someone in cyberspace, but can you friend someone in real life? Or must you befriend them? If you thank someone for befriending you on Facebook, will they know what you mean, or will they unfriend you (or is it defriend)? If you write on their wall out of spite, will they cite you for vandalism? And how many likes will this article get on Facebook?!

You’ll be relieved to know that there are studies now to suggest that being unfriended on Facebook is likely to make you sad or angry in real life. According to the findings by the University of Colorado Denver Business School, “40 percent of people surveyed said they would avoid in real life anyone who unfriended them on Facebook.” Apparently, life imitates tech. Say hello to malaise, isolation and awkwardness, all with the simple click of a button.

Even well-meaning cyberinteractions have their banal side. David Plotz wrote in Slate two years ago about his disdain for the superficial Facebook birthday wall post, which has “all the true sentiment of a Christmas card from your bank.” He ran an informal social experiment by changing his Facebook account birthdate several times to see if any of his friends (Facebook friends, that is) noticed. Although a few caught on, they were outnumbered by “profligate birthday wishers.”

Plotz concluded cynically that the quest for “undeserved social capital” motivates many Facebook users. Their behavior may be less calculated: Perhaps people are just trying to be nice, however feebly.

But even then, the prognosis is troubling. As Plotz says, if “the social network alienates us from genuine friendship, the Facebook birthday greeting is the ultimate example of its fakery.”

In her recent book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” Sherry Turkle tackles the problem of virtual intimacy. “People are lonely,” she writes. “The network is seductive.” As in all things, quantity does not equal quality. Despite our vast and constant connectedness, we feel more alone than ever. Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, surrounded by an ocean that offers buoyancy without sustenance, we might say: water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. Put starkly by Turkle, “In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”

In all of this, there is also an element of generational handwringing. Kids these days — they prefer to text rather than talk! Well, their ancestors preferred TV over radio. And their ancestors went for the wheel and fire over knuckle-dragging and freezing to death. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the effects of social media on our relationships and psyches. But the technology is here to stay. The question is, “How will we use it?”

I write all of this as a frequent Facebook user with 1,220 friends. This online community has allowed me to keep in regular contact, pleasantly if occasionally superficially, with dozens of people I would not otherwise stay connected to. Friends often post stories that generate engaging conversations and my own learning, not to mention sermon ideas. When I failed to find the Plotz article by googling, I posted on Facebook to ask for help. Within minutes, a friend — a former college roommate — chimed in with the link I sought. Facebook enables readers to continue this conversation by sharing and commenting on this very article.

If our relationships and communities are eroding, if our ability to communicate face to face is fading, it’s too easy to blame social media. That kind of scapegoating lets us off the hook. We are, after all, the users. We can decide how much screen time will fill our day, and how much face time (and, yes, FaceTime, too).

Like all the tools we have developed since the dawn of civilization, social media can be used for good or ill. The technology changes, but the questions that confront us do not: Will our values inform how technology affects our lives, or will we let our tools rule over us? How will we use technology to make life both more convenient and more meaningful? Will we seek simply to up our quantity of virtual friends? Or will we also invest the time and care to cultivate real friends who will be there for us, not only online in times of virtual crisis and celebration? And will we be there for them?

Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or He blogs at, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.

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