BFF of sinners

6 Jun

More acronyms. BFF or FBF? Best Friend Forever or Facebook Friend? Which does your social sphere most resemble? (I realise that there are more social networking sites than Facebook, some more popular depending on location; I use Facebook as a discussion starter simply because it is the largest and most influential global site, not out of any sense of personal devotion…)

Social networking is changing both the way we relate and what language itself means. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way; this is a simple observation, not a bring-back-the-good-old-days moan. Culture, of which language is an integral part, is dynamic and in a constant state of flux, there are just times when we notice it more.) Let’s start with language.

Beyond the growing influence of txt-speak with new terms such as lol finding their way into everyday vocabulary, existing words are being reshaped. For example, a normal conversation will involve chatting, talking and listening. But not in the world of cyber-relationships. Are you a good listener? “Listening” normally involves paying attention to the content of what another wants to transmit. But in the blogosphere listening is simply skimming what is “out there” to discover “trending topics” or where our own name gets a mention. More a case of keeping a virtual ear to the ground than taking anything in. And “chat” no longer implies talk. When someone wants to “chat”, further definition is now required to know if they in fact are looking to “voice-chat” (how strange is that?) or rather write/type – probably on a smartphone if connecting with a member of the emerging “thumbtribe”, the English term commonly used to express the original Japanese oyayubizoku.

What about “follow”? Once a relatively sombre term, in certain situations even with overtones of stalking, “follow” is a term still in evolution. Jesus’ “Follow me” certainly has a different meaning in a world of tweets than in 1st century Palestine. To have a couple of thousand Twitter followers is no huge achievement; to have followers who embrace your ideals and values is a completely different story.

And then there is “relationship”. What exactly is a “relationship” these days? Sometimes it is clearly an exclusive (normally sexual) bond, as in “I’m in a relationship with so-and-so”, but more often than not it is predicated on the ties created on social networks, thus being as thick or as thin as these. A relationship becomes whatever the participants want it to be.

“Like”, is an interesting one too, seeming to resemble the “amens” in some churches, which mean anything from “Yes, preach it!” to “We can hear you at the back”. In other words it is a generic response that somehow lets the other person know that you are there and are paying at least minimal attention. A Facebook “like” does something to cement “relationship”, particularly if someone has suggested that you “like” a page they have created; it does not necessarily imply agreement with the content, or even in fact “liking” it at all.

Coming finally to the focus of this post, take the term “friend” itself. To its definition of friend as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations” the Oxford dictionary has added a sub-definition: “a contact on a social networking website”. How many of your Facebook friends would you describe as people with whom you “share a bond of mutual affection”? Friend may have been a less inappropriate term for the original Facebook restricted to a closed university context but has somehow stuck as Facebook has mushroomed to a vehicle with the potential to connect anyone on the planet to absolutely anyone else. “Friend” has lost its meaning. Given that 80% of Facebook friend requests are accepted, “friend” now refers simply to a person who has been granted access to one of the (virtual) networks that we belong to. We have come a long way from the Philia of Aristotle or Amicitia of Cicero. As Mark Zuckerberg himself said: “Facebook is the most successful social network in the world, enabling millions to share information of no interest with people they barely know”.

There are more, but that, I think, shows what we are talking about. Is Orwellian “Newspeak” able to control thought and mould the surrounding world, or will language simply express whatever is happening at a deeper level within a given society? In other words, is language a reflection of where culture is going, or can culture be steered by language? For me, this is never an either-or; language and culture are so intertwined that language will always grow out of cultural innovation, but then, in turn, will impact future social development. So, the very meaning of “friendship” has been forever altered, both linguistically and in cultural practice, through the combined social and technological revolution that is Facebook.

What does all this mean? According to the American Sociological Review study published in 2006, “friendship” is in fact in decline. The average American may have 245 Facebook friends, but in “real life” that number of close friends (not family members) drops to two. That’s right, just two friends. In 1985 the average American had three, still not enough for a football team, but statistically well above today’s figure. Worse still, that is the average. One in four Americans confesses to having no friends. None, not one. “One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.”

Retreating into the isolation of home is paralleled by exponential growth of cyber relationships (whatever that means, as we have seen…). Friendship is largely lived out online. Socially inept individuals can avoid the angst of real-life encounters and yet still forge meaningful, intimate even, friendships with other like souls. And these do not just allow for the sharing of superficial information or interest-based activity; for many, this is where the deepest feelings are expressed and the closest ties built.

This is not being addicted to technology – it is addiction to people, connected through technology, in what Pew Research’s Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman describe as “Networked individualism”. But what has changed is that the focus is no longer on the unit, the community, the family – it is on the individual. Social networking sites link individuals together independently of the social group that formerly enabled this interaction. No wonder this manner of relating has exploded in the individualistically minded West: autonomous individuals at the centre of self-defined networks that enable multithreaded simultaneous relating to other selected individuals from the comfort of one’s chosen environment – heaven on earth!

Friendship is morphing. But Jesus is still “friend of sinners”. And we are still to love as he loved.

This is our world. Stay with it.

Be a friend, BFF to some – I reckon Jesus had a few of those – and FBF to others. (No, Jesus had no Facebook friends, but he did reach out with a similar depth of relationship to numbers on a par with our FB friend lists.) But be a good friend, especially of sinners.

And please friend me.

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