“Friends are as friends do,” as the old saying goes. We all need friends, most people would agree. Friends help define our identity and shape our personality. Good friends look after us, support our efforts, and they tell us what’s what without hurting our feelings. And most of us, unless we have a psychological disorder, want to be liked – not just by our friends, but by people in general. That, after all, is how we make friends! Few are the prickly, nasty people in the world who have any friends, let alone, lots of them!
Until recently, making friends required physical proximity. You made friends with neighbours and co-workers, at school or on the bus, with friends of friends. You knew what the people you chose to be friends with looked like and sounded like when they laughed or got angry.
You could still be friends with someone you never met and stay in touch via letters (in the days when people still wrote letters, of course) – a pen pal, a distant collaborator. But that’s different – there was a purpose to the endeavour.
Today, the Internet makes it inconceivably easy to entertain relationships with otherwise marginal acquaintances, if not total strangers who, with a simple click, become our “friends,” our “connections,” our “followers.” Some of our friends even “have us in circles,” whatever that’s supposed to mean! And best of all, there is no purpose to having all these friends except to show that you have lots of them.
Much like the way statistical data are used in professional sports – goals, assists, corners, unforced errors, RBIs, saves, blocks (the list is endless) – the Internet allows us to quantify our popularity, our standing, our influence?, our ability to “make” friends. And there is no arguing with statistics! Or is there?
Aside from the fact that quantitative data provide little, if any, insight into qualitative values, there is the question of reliability. No, I don’t mean if any one of your thousands of Facebook friends can be counted on to, say, stop in and say hello if you’re in bed with a cold or lend you money if you’re going through a rough patch, but rather if it is actually true that everyone’s long list of friends is accurate in the same way that, say, sports stats are accurate.
Recently, British prime minister David Cameron was exposed by The Guardian newspaper for buying friends and followers on social media (theguardian.com). It is highly unlikely that he is the only person, high profile or other, to do so. A recent article in Wired Magazine, “How to Buy Friends and Influence People on Facebook,” revealed the existence of companies which provide the service of creating fake users and paying real account holders for following and liking. The cost: 500 likes for $30 or 20,000 for $699! (wired.com). A Facebook page even exists for people who want to express their likes for a company that offers the service (facebook.com/buyyourfriends). As of this writing it has 6,028 likes. According to reports, Facebook and other social media sites are working hard to eliminate fake friends and followers from their pages.
But even if my 2973 Facebook friends and followers are genuine, then what? In our drive to accumulate friends, followers, links, hits and likes, I wonder if we are not forgetting about the value of true friendship. We have reduced friendship to a simple click of the mouse, a statistical cumulus, but where do we go from here? How many Facebook friends do we really need? How many connections does it take to keep from being lonely, to really feel… connected? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The use of the word “friend” in this context is highly metaphorical – an appropriation, a “re-purposing.”
These are not real friends we have on Facebook, not even virtual friends; it is rather a base, a self-inflicted statistical measure of approval (or lack thereof) – however symbolic – for what we do and how we appear. Even in the virtual world, appearances seem to matter, judging from the effort we all put into being liked and making connections. Meanwhile, the social media sites gather our data, which is the real purpose of the exercise, so they can pitch us products and services.
Speaking of connections, this issue, among other things, connects readers with something Italians know well – food. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, what the heck, go to our Facebook page and click “Like.” If you really like it, tell your friends to buy a subscription or, better yet, buy them one…!