The Philosophy of Phacebook Phriends

Modern technology (plus time travel) would have made some amazing debates possible.

Modern technology (plus time travel) would have made some amazing debates possible.

Song of the day: “Friends” by Led Zeppelin

Think about how many friends you interacted with today.  Out of those friends, how many did you actually interact with–like, in person, face to face?

That was probably about ten percent for me yesterday.  When you add up all the texts, Facebook messages, emails, phone calls, Snapchats, FaceTime and Skype sessions, etc., I must have communicated with about thirty friends.  Do you know how many whose actual, physical bodies I saw with my own two eyes?  Two.  Three, if you count family too (I had lunch with my grandma).

More and more, our friends live not down the street, but in our smartphones and on the Internet.  We can access them with the push of a button, send them pictures of our world instantaneously, and take our minds out of the here-and-now to chill in cyberspace whenever we’d like.  With applications like GroupMe and Google Hangouts, we can even talk to several friends at once.  Back when letters were the most effective means of long-distance communication and cross-country phone calls cost a fortune, it was much more difficult to stay close to the friends that had moved away.  Now, all it takes is the effort required to type a few words and press “enter.”

Most people embrace this new reality.  Do a Google search on long-distance friendship and you’ll find a slew of Buzzfeed posts and other sentimental blog entries singing the praises of having buddies who live across the country or the world.  But despite my own amazing relationships with friends from California and England and Florida and myriad other places, I find myself wondering whether the very nature of friendship has changed because of cell phones and the Internet.  Do we need to define it differently than we have in the past?  And is modern-day long-distance friendship quantifiably better or worse than the old-fashioned kind?

Psychology tells us that long-distance friendship alone is not enough to survive.  From birth, humans are dependent upon physical contact with other people to assure normal mental development–notably shown in Harry Harlow’s experiments that showed rhesus monkeys preferring cloth-coated “mothers” over ones made of wire frame and developing insufficient emotional intelligence when exposed to only the latter.  Humans benefit emotionally from touching and being touched by others in warm and friendly ways because such contact releases oxytocin, which decreases levels of cortisol and corresponding levels of stress.  And British psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that because online, long-distance friends can’t share experiences or physical contact with us, our real-life social skills and the number of meaningful social interactions we have with others will actually decrease as social media’s rise continues.

Among the great philosophers, though, there are disagreements with this point stemming from each one’s definition of friendship.  Aristotle, who laid out one of the earliest and most influential discussions of friendship, wrote that the sharing of virtuous ethical activity is most crucial for developing true friends–a distinction marked by desiring good to come of the other for the other’s sake and being able to see their virtue as clearly as you can see your own.  Merely deriving utility or pleasure from someone does not make them your friend.  While his discussion has its flaws (you can check them out in detail here), when we ask whether long-distance friendship can fall in Aristotle’s highest classification of friendship, we can find support for both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, desiring a friend’s good for that friend’s sake is something that you can do over the Internet, and I’d argue that sharing values and virtues with our closest friends is a given and, again, does not require a physical presence.  But on the other hand, Aristotle says that friends must spend a great deal of time with each other in the pursuit of virtuous acts.  Does mere conversation and thought count?  According to Aristotle’s conception of the good (read: virtuous) life, it may or may not.  He names two different types of good lives: the life of politics and the life of contemplation.  The former seems to require physical interaction, particularly in the context of the small city-states that made up Aristotle’s Greece, where engagement in the government and society would have been of paramount importance.  To be fair, with the birth of social media activism, long-distance friends may be able to engage in the same kind of political activity, if only on a national scale.  But I would argue that social media activism falls more accurately into the category of a contemplative life, and that true political virtue still require the type of direct engagement that isn’t possible for friends to undertake when they are separated.

Friends who achieve virtue through contemplation, though, don’t need to be physically close to share a meaningful friendship because the Internet and telecommunications have enabled thought and discussion to be shared instantaneously and effortlessly.  On this ground, I think Aristotle is joined by other philosophers, especially those of the Enlightenment and later who maintained vigorous penpals (Voltaire being among the most famously active in his letter writing).  Also meeting Aristotle here is Nietzsche, whose anti-philosophy and subsequent characterization of friendship actually ends up dovetailing perfectly with the idea of long-distance buddies.

As I’ve discussed previously, Nietzsche’s entire system is predicated on overcoming yourself and all of the formations foisted upon you by society, history, and other people.  At first glance, friendship appears to be the type of permanent value that Nietzsche would consider a limit on the will to power–particularly Aristotle’s conception of wanting the other’s good for the other’s sake.  In a life dedicated to constant creation and destruction of values and the ability to spontaneously affirm life, wouldn’t attachment to another person get in the way?

This has always been the major thorn Nietzsche puts in my side.  Having studied both philosophy and psychology, I admire Nietzsche’s commitment to self-overcoming but can’t ignore psychological findings about the emotional importance of a steady self-concept and reliance upon friends.  I haven’t given up on trying to marry the two seemingly conflicting ways of thought, though, and I think I have an answer: real friendship is possible for Nietzsche between people who share the goal of expressing the will to power, but it’s a friendship based on challenging the other to reach new heights of self-overcoming.  These friends are not dependent upon each other per se, but viewing each other’s aspiration to the übermensch gives them mutual respect and the encouragement and competitive drive that fuel ambition.  We might call this type of relationship a friendly rivalry, the sort of friendship that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared, in which the two were incredibly close emotionally but also pushed each other to new heights of creativity.

Does this Nietzschean type of friendship require a physical presence in the other’s life?  I don’t think so.  While the close proximity of hanging out together might provide a stronger sense of challenge to self-overcome, it also involves a greater risk of attaching permanent value to the friendship (again, a thought we take for granted but we’re in Nietzsche’s world right now).  In that case, a long-distance friendship might actually prove to be more effective, since the ideas and stories of expressing the will to power can still be shared but the separation of the friends reduces their mutual dependency.  The value thus accorded to the technology that makes long-distance friendship possible, meanwhile, becomes the new center of debate.

In sum, I think it’s obvious that a long-distance friendship will be stronger if it’s based in some original physical interaction, but that doesn’t mean a cyber relationship can’t be meaningful.  As long as we ensure that we don’t get totally caught up in the interwebs and lose sight of the real world and the moment we inhabit, there’s actually a lot of benefit to having a friend who can view your problems from a thousand miles away, see the big picture, and offer objective advice.  And when it comes to sharing thought, long-distance works just fine.  In fact, I think some of the less socially skilled philosophers *cough KANT cough* would have been absolute Facebook fiends–they’d probably be those people who get really annoying and share about fifty articles a day on their timeline.

So feel free to strike up an online conversation with me if you enjoyed reading this.  Maybe if things work out, we’ll actually meet up face-to-face and be friends like people were in the old days.