Friendships are the backbone to many aspects of our lives. When there are important life decisions to make or problems with romantic relationships, we often turn to friends.
“What are friends but unpaid psychoanalysts? It’s cheap therapy we all need,” says Professor of English and Cultural Studies and Coordinator of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Tom Roach, Ph.D., who authored Friendship as a Way of Life and covers the philosophy of friendship in Bryant’s “Sex, Love, and Social Media” course.
But in the age of social media, friendships are changing. According to Roach, friendship has become more transactional and quantifiable.
Friendship was the most important relationship in the ancient world, says Roach. In Greek and Roman times, Aristotle developed the concept known as philia — a competitive friendship between men. This was the main form of friendship of that era and drove the modern world’s corporate, capitalist, and government structures.
Over the years, many friendships formed on the premise of survival and became a building block toward political activism. Roach notes that, historically, friendship has been particularly important for minority communities and women since these individuals needed each other to survive power imbalances. Additionally, during the AIDS crisis, members of the gay community came together as friends and formed activist groups after families rejected their sons and daughters because they were gay or had HIV.
Today, Roach says friendship is often taken for granted, with society placing more emphasis on romantic relationships.
“Although I love romance as much as the next person, friendships are survival relationships. Our friends help us cope with whatever life throws at us,” says Roach.
A social transaction
Today, an estimated 4.9 billion people use social media across the world, according to Forbes; that number is expected to increase to 5.85 billion users by 2027. With a world population of eight billion, slightly more than half of all people have at least one social media account.
Roach says social media has picked up on homophilic models of friendship where people share similar characteristics, rather than xenophilic models that welcome foreignness. While the dream of the internet was to open people’s access to new ideas and cosmopolitan thinking, social media’s algorithms connect people who have common interests, Roach says.
“Algorithms encourage us to connect with people who look like us, think like us, and live like us. We end up creating these friendship networks that are closed, and this can be dangerous for a democratic society,” Roach says.
Through social media, friendships have become a means of business networking, status boosting, and quantification, according to Roach. For instance, person A needs person B’s follow request to look better. When person A and B have each followed one another, they have helped boost one another’s status.
He says social media outlets can mold individuals to understand one another in very specific ways, but there is still a brighter side to these digital outlets. Roach suggests looking at current friendship models and seeing how people can use social media to open avenues of new forms of intimacy and relating to one another. With new understandings of friendship and what it means to connect, figuring out how to develop meaningful friendships in the digital age is important.
“We’re not just going to wish social media away. We have to reflect deeply on what they are doing to us and what we can do with them. These media are amazingly powerful tools. Our ethical task is to determine how we might use them to build a better world,” Roach says.