With Friends Like These

By Michael Gerson
Friday, October 5, 2007

Conservatives, ever allergic to fashion, have a habit of encountering social trends long after millions of their fellow citizens, then pronouncing themselves unamused. So like a tardy Columbus, I recently set out to discover the new world of online social networking sites and found it uninhabitable.

Perhaps some of this reaction is personal -- a realization that it is possible to remain socially awkward even in virtual worlds dedicated to social interaction. Clearly I have fewer friends than I thought.

But someone is harvesting friends in bushels. MySpace, which seems overrun by high-schoolers, has more than 200 million participants. According to one study, half of Americans between ages 12 and 17 belong to a social networking site. Facebook, which began linking college students in 2004, is now open to everyone and boasts more than 40 million members.

Devotees regularly update their online profiles -- posting messages and pictures; listing their interests, favorite rock bands and sexual preferences; "poking" acquaintances in a kind of virtual wink; sending out party invitations; blogging about the smallest events of their lives. These milestones are turned into a news ticker that keeps friends informed. Couples announce they are "in a relationship" -- using Facebook to solemnize their commitment like a virtual justice of the peace. Memorials are posted in honor of those who die -- a tribute that does little to touch a lonely grief.

In a fine article in the journal New Atlantis, Christine Rosen notes that access to these communities is earned by "the revelation of personal information." The sites have settings to protect privacy, but they reward self-exposure. As a result, Rosen says, "you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month."

The problem is not just sexual explicitness, though there is plenty of that. MySpace is known for its cheerful, adolescent decadence. Facebook has a rather sad category of dating goals proclaiming "whatever I can get."

Most disturbingly, this form of friendship is the rejection of modesty -- of restraint and inhibition. People end up treating their own lives as the media treats Paris Hilton's, shining a public spotlight on the most intimate details. They become the publisher and object of their own tabloid.

This amounts to a minor -- a very minor -- form of fame. But it does not seem consistent with building friendship, which involves a gradual accumulation of trust, leading to self-revelation and intimacy. In mature relationships, we guard our secrets and troubles so we can give out that knowledge sparingly. We grant our best friends access to our emotional private garden, not to a public playground. That is the way they know they are friends. By this standard, reticence is not a psychological disorder, it is a social achievement. It makes friendship possible.

There is a serious literature on friendship, which is the first kind of socialization we consciously choose -- parents and siblings are a given of nature. This kind of love is often intense, but not, as in sexual love, possessive -- we willingly share our friends. Aristotle thought that friendship was essential to citizenship: "But it is also true that the virtuous man's conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will if necessary lay down his life in their behalf." The teachings of Jesus were similar: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

This is a vision of friendship that involves loyalty, sympathy and sacrifice. It bears little resemblance to online networking. And insofar as the frantic search for acquaintances becomes a substitute for friendship among the young, it is neither fulfilling nor harmless.

It is difficult to muster much outrage against Internet trends, which generally have the shelf life of room-temperature milk. Social networking, taken in small doses, is hardly toxic, and sometimes useful. But there are some things about the Internet culture -- its attack on modesty, its complication of true intimacy, its reward for shallowness -- that should be unsettling to any conservative. Or anyone who wants their children to know an undiluted friendship.

T.S. Eliot once referred to television as a medium that allows millions of people to laugh at the same joke and still be lonely. Social networking has gone a step further. It allows many to mourn the same death and not be comforted.


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