Facebook Friendships and the Good Life

For Lent this year, I gave up Facebook. My reasoning was multifold. In part, I was starting to worry how much time I was spending “piddling” on the computer during the long Boston winter. I wanted to spend more meaningful time on the computer, and replace the time I was wasting on Facebook with reading books (which has been largely successful until I started reading War and Peace; now I am craving FB again). But I also watched “The Social Network” right before Lent started and found Mark Zuckerberg’s character pretty reprehensible. It was the final scene that struck me most, where Zuckerberg is in the lawyer’s office, and the pretty young lawyer has just left, and he sends a friend request to Erica, his ex-girlfriend, and keeps refreshing the page, waiting for a response.

Zuckerberg’s character went from reprehensible to sympathetic. I could not but help feel pity for a guy whose only possibility for “friendship” was through Facebook. A couple of years ago, the New York Observer interviewed some Facebook holdouts who were critical of such alleged “friendships” that Facebook offered:

Cary Goldstein, 33, the director of publicity at Twelve books, is another proud Facebook holdout. “I don’t see how having hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ is leading to any kind of substantive friendships,” he said. “The whole thing seems so weird to me. Now you really have to turn off your computer and just go out to live real life and make real connections with people that way. I don’t think it’s healthy.”

Yet the number of people not on Facebook is steadily declining. So as Lent comes to an end and I prepare to reenter Facebook, I’ve started thinking more about the nature of Facebook friendships from an EverydayThomist perspective. I’ve addressed this question before using Cicero, but I think the question demands further examination in light of the rising importance of Facebook in people’s lives.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that friendship is at the heart of Aristotle’s ethics: “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods,” he writes at the beginning of Book VIII of the Nichomachean Ethics. Following Aristotle, Aquinas also places friendship at a central place in the moral life by identifying charity, the mother of the virtues, as friendship with God.

What is friendship? For Aquinas, it is a particular type of love. Following Aristotle (Rhetoric ii, 4), Aquinas writes,

To love is to wish good to someone.’ Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good. Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good (I-II, Q. 26, art. 4).

Most generally, a relationship of friendship is one characterized by mutual well-wishing and benevolence. Friends are those who wish good for one another. But friendship goes beyond benevolence. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship demands that one see the friend as another self, and demands a certain “affective union” between oneself and the friend (II-II, Q. 27, art. 2).

Because of the intimacy that is prerequisite to friendship, friendship demands contact with the person who is our friend. It seems that for Aristotle, one needs actual physical contact to sustain the friendship: “Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together.” In Book XI, Aristotle provides further support for the idea that friendship demands a certain physical society:

Surely it is strange, too, to make the supremely happy man a solitary; for no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others. Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.

Friends, for Aristotle, must share a life together. Friendship, he says at the end of Book IX, delights in the sight of the beloved. Friendship is an intimate partnership.

“And as a man is to himself, so is he to his friend; now in his own case the consciousness of his being is desirable, and so therefore is the consciousness of his friend’s being, and the activity of this consciousness is produced when they live together, so that it is natural that they aim at this. And whatever existence means for each class of men, whatever it is for whose sake they value life, in that they wish to occupy themselves with their friends; and so some drink together, others dice together, others join in athletic exercises and hunting, or in the study of philosophy, each class spending their days together in whatever they love most in life; for since they wish to live with their friends, they do and share in those things which give them the sense of living together.”

As Paul Wadell writes, “The test of any friendship is our willingness to let our life be shaped by it, not only to spend time with our friend and be present to her, but also to succumb to the friendship, to make ourself vulnerable to it because in some way our life is created from it” (Friends of God, 34).

The question, it seems, is whether Facebook satisfies the demands for a “shared life together.” For Aristotle, the society of friendship is clearly physical, but he, of course, did not know the possibility of a virtual society. Can we agree with Aristotle that friendship demands contact, but also conclude that the virtual “contact” provided by Facebook satisfies this demand? After all, it may be true that we do not stay friends with people that we lose contact with, but Facebook makes it possible to never lose contact and hence, to never lose the friendship.

It is hard to see, however, how the intimacy that friendship demands is satisfied by Facebook. One possible reason is that we are corporeal creatures, and hence, our friendships demand a great degree of corporeality. To be a human self is to be embodied. It is impossible to see the friend as another self without somehow sharing in bodily life together: eating together, touching each other, hearing each other’s voices, looking into each other’s eyes. Facebook friendships can only palely imitate this corporeal intimacy with pictures, wall conversations, and likes and dislikes, but at the end of the day, the Facebook friend can never be “another self” because the friend is always disembodied.

We are social creatures, and the intimacy that we human creatures demand is a very physical intimacy. And this is what makes the end of “The Social Network” so tragic: Zuckerberg’s isolation is a physical one, one which he tries to fill virtually but can never find satisfaction. You get the sense that what he wants at the end of the movie is not money, nor power, nor fame, but somebody to eat dinner with, to converse with, to touch his arm consolingly, to bear with him. The man with thousands of friends is actually friendless.

From an Aristotelian perspective, friendship is clearly the basis of a good life. Maybe the end of “The Social Network,” however, reveals more about the corporeal nature of the good life than it does about the friendship made possible by Facebook. If Facebook keeps us from a shared life with our friends, it can be antithetical to the good life, as we see with Zuckerberg. But Facebook need not replace true friendship. Like so many things in life, Facebook may only become bad when used excessively.

So, as Lent comes to a close, I am looking forward to getting back on Facebook. I think I’ll probably use it less, but I bet I’ll always use it some. I have, however, enjoyed this time of abstinence and the opportunity it provided to reflect more thoroughly on the nature of friendship and the good life.


4 comments so far

  1. David Wm. Scott on

    A friend of mine (Jamie Ayrton – http://jayrton.wordpress.com/) coined a term that I think describes the best use of technology like Facebook. He argues that technology is increasingly used not to create virtual realities, but an augmented reality. He uses the example of the line of scrimmage digitally added in to broadcasts of football on TV. We’re not watching some digital fabrication of a football game, but we are using digital technology to augment our experience of the real game that we’re watching.
    I think FB can be like that. I would agree that if one is using FB friendship as a type of virtual friendship that replaces friendship mediated through face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact, then it is, as you say, only a pale imitation. But I think FB used well has the power to created augmented friendships – friendships that can be mediated not only via face-to-face interactions, phone, and letters/e-mails, but in a whole host of other electronic ways that let you more fully know and love your friends. Granted, not all FB use lives up to this standard, but I prefer to focus on FB as a potential medium to augment rather friendship rather than a distraction from friendship.

    • everydaythomist on

      David and Meredith,
      Thanks for reading. I love the idea of a virtually augmented friendship and I think that provides a really nice answer to Meredith below. Here’s the potential problem: I waste (or I did–I haven’t been back on FB even to post blogs since Lent ended!) a lot of time on FB doing things that don’t augment friendships at all. Random wall debates. Half an hour spent browsing through pictures of people whom I may know and I like, but still don’t get anything out of picture gazing except the satisfaction of a mild curiosity, the daily check through the news reader. Now, I agree that FB can and does augment relationships and form some sort of community, as Meredith notes above, that I don’t want to remove myself from that. But it also wastes a ton of time on the computer that keeps me from more intentional friendships. For me, this is particularly problematic because I have two blogs that I also spend time on (as an augmented form of scholarship) as well as email, reading other blogs, etc. At the end of the day, I have spent a lot of time on the computer and a lot less time on friendships. And it does seem that my reality, in the process, becomes more virtual and less “augmented.” Like all things, it is a trick of finding balance, and this is part of the reason I have not returned to FB in this Easter season.

      On the other hand, I would not, Meredith, remove myself from FB entirely, because it is, as you say, a form of community and because it has become, for better or for worse, an important part of human relationships. You might become less intentional by getting off of FB totally, but it may be at the extent of other people who like to check up on what you are doing even if they don’t get to see you everyday. To remove yourself from FB at this point, I think (depending on how much your friends use it) might to more harm than good to your friendships. Again, I think the solution is balance. I still have not figured out that balance but if you have ideas, just let me know!

  2. Meredith on

    I really appreciated this post. I have been toying with the idea of canceling my FB account for awhile now to help me focus more on my face-to-face relationships and community. I haven’t been able to make myself delete it yet, however, because of the convenience of keeping in touch with people far away.
    The importance of community is something that I have increasingly been thinking about, especially after my time in Macedonia. It is expected that people visit and are visited by friends and neighbors daily. I was amazed with how intentional the people are about being in each other’s lives. So on the one hand, I have the thought of canceling the account in order to focus on being more intentional about participating in my surrounding community. On the other hand, it seems that FB is itself a form of community. By taking myself out of it, would I be removing myself from another valuable community?

    Just wanted to throw my two cents in. Hope you’re doing well!

  3. Charles on

    I don’t think it is accurate to compare Zuckerberg, the character in “The Social Network,” with Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Or, to use the concept introduced by David, I don’t think “The Social Network is an “augmented reality” of the history of FB and its founder. Thus, using the movie character of Zuckerberg to determine whether or not one should use the real Zuckerberg’s FB is an egregious failure of logic.

    “The Social Network” was probably the best movie of last year. (No surprise the Academy got it wrong. Again.) This wasn’t for its biographical qualities. This was because it is a complex, nuanced, humanly ambiguous portrait of the culture and those of us living in it.

    Many people make the same mistake with the character of Jack Stanton in “Primary Colors.” Reducing either film as a gloss on the real life individuals who were the springboard for the work is to miss most of what these films are really all about.

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