Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Banality of Friendship

Discussing social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace, Felicia Wu Song observes (source - regrets, it's a PDF):

[C]elebrities, rock stars, and one's social intimates can exist side-by-side on a Friends list with little or no dissonance. A banality of friendship is designed into the functions of these sites. Its easy acceptance suggests that young Americans are both amenable to a "thinning out" of personal relationships and a "thickening" of public figures conventionally encountered through the mass media. In this way, Friends lists publicly articulate and reinforce the contemporary experience of "pseudo-community," the illusion of relationship that media audiences feel with television talk-show hosts, movie stars, and other celebrities.
Well, yes, it does create the impression -- an appearance, a simulation, a pretense -- of "thinning" and "thickening" to see a "friends" list composed of the famous and the non-famous, but is it any deeper than an impression? Is the person with the mix of famous and non-famous online "friends" confused about the depth of the "friendships"?

I would say no. I think users of social networking sites are clear about the depths of their human interactions, however long or sprawling their "friends" lists might be. One quickly finds that there is nothing in the act of "friending" a famous person that translates into actual friendly interaction with the famous person; it becomes, instead, just another avenue of exposure to the famous person's ongoing image-making and sales efforts -- album releases, book releases, tour dates, movie roles, etc. At most, it gives a sense of being "in the know" about the celebrity, and that amounts to nothing more than can be found from watching talk shows or reading celebrity magazines.

But there's another side to the confusion: are observers of these public pages confused about the depths of the listed "friendships"? I would say yes, at least a little, and designedly so. The list of "friends" serves as a status marker that declares, look at all the cool, sexy, trendy, interesting people with whom I associate. The nature of the association is tantalizingly ambiguous: maybe this unknown geek from an obscure place has just "friended" everyone he admires from tee-vee, but then again, maybe he actually attends the sexy parties. Maybe just maybe, beneath the surface of the long list of famous "friends," he is exchanging personal messages with those celebrities. It's not, after all, impossible. The ambiguity is enforced by the private-public split of user profiles on these sites: some things are accessible to any web browser, some things only to fellow users of the site, still others only to "friends," and some only to the user himself. Making a status statement of that sort, even or perhaps especially an ambiguous one, is like chocolate-covered crack to teens and young adults, precisely the people who frequent these social networking sites.

Looking at these social networking sites, I don't see any banality of friendship worth mentioning, just the banality of target marketing and teenage angst. And an ugly, blaring superfluity of banner ads signaling how successful they are.

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