“We could be entering a period of crisis for the entire concept of friendship,” Mark Vernon warned in an article “Is true friendship dying away?” (USA Today, July 27, 2010). Vernon had been researching the concept of “friends” in the social media age. He reported “the average American has only two close friends, and a quarter don’t have any.”
“Close friends share salt together,” Aristotle once observed.
This is not about passing the shaker during an eat-and-run meal. Vernon explained that close friends “…sit with one another across the course of their lives, sharing its savor – its moments, bitter and sweet.”
Perhaps the easy but less personal interaction of social networking has become a substitute for the work of building friendships. Personal pages on social networking sites boast the number of “friends” each person has acquired.
Such relationships remind me of “pen pals.” Mine was a girl named Marejke who lived in Europe. Our connection was made through an organization that matched students from different countries – the 1950s paper, pen and postage version of social networking. We wrote to each other about our families, our interests, what we were doing in school.
A letter took weeks to travel between Breda, The Netherlands and Evansville, Indiana. I remember my excitement when her letters arrived in the tissue-thin envelopes with matching paper we used to lessen the high cost of overseas mail. The thrill was not in what she wrote but the very idea that I was communicating with someone my own age who lived on the other side of the world, in a strange and different place.
We kept in touch, though less frequently, into adulthood. Some twenty years later I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Marejke. To my surprise, we had little in common and soon ran out of conversation.
Today, technology makes worldwide connections commonplace and response time often immediate. But, are we building relationships with the depth of enduring friendship or merely friendly connections?
I have “online friends” with whom I share mutual interests: reading, writing, genealogy, polymer clay. We connect through membership in organizations that support these interests and through blogs, listserves, and social media sites. We might even meet face to face at conferences or over a cup of coffee when we happen to find ourselves in the same city. Our online conversations are mutually supportive and often quite personal. These connections offer encouragement, sympathy, advice, new ideas, resources for problem solving, a shared laugh.
Then there are “friends online,” people with whom I have a deep personal relationship beyond the confines of the computer screen. Some I have known since childhood. Others have been roommates, co-workers, neighbors. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. We have a history together and our lives have been seasoned by shared experiences. They are people I know, like and trust (the Admerican Heritage dictionary definition of “friend”).
Many of these friends are separated by great distances now. Email has replaced the letters we used to exchange by U.S. Postal Service. Today, technology allows us to sit together around a virtual table, discussing, consoling, encouraging, laughing and crying together. Our friendship has been tested by life’s events and found durable. These are the people who would come, even from a long distance, if I needed help and they know I would do the same for them. These are the friends with whom I share digital salt.
Mark Vernon is the author of The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)