Facebook Friends? What Kind of Relationship is it REALLY?


“In a general sense, there are three main groups of people that constitute the landscape of your social media friends.”

 A recent Inbox exchange with a Facebook friend got me thinking about what social media friends really mean and whether or not you can categorize virtual friends as you would the people in your non-virtual life. The exchange was far from fun but was certainly illuminating in terms of conceptualizing categories of Facebook friends. My analysis led me to conclude that, in a general sense, there are three main groups of people that constitute the landscape of your social media friends. I describe each below.

Close friends/relatives and fellow students/colleagues:

This category revolves around folks you have typically known for a long time. You have maintained steady contact with them through the years because they are either part of your family or are persons imgreswith whom you have developed a stable and reciprocal close relationship. They could also be people you see regularly because you either work, go to school with, or collaborate with through an organization/association. Using Facebook to communicate is a complimentary way to share feelings, thoughts, and information. Such ‘friends’ often provide support, guidance when physical communication is not possible or difficult. If conflict does occur through Facebook with this group of people it can be more or less easily resolved by talking in person and clearing the air.

Friends to snoop on:

Those are individuals you are curious to know more about/explore their Facebook without any realistic intention to develop (or rekindle) a friendship. They are the people you add five minutes after knowing them or the person you knew a million years ago and are wondering what happened to them (just like you wonder what happened to that one hit wonder). In almost all such cases, you have no written communication with them – you just ‘add’ them and snoop from afar and may search ‘deep’ into their albums, wall, without admitting to anyone you do so. You may ‘like’ some of their comments or pictures and, if you are going to go a little further in publically acknowledging you are following their virtual lives, you comment on a good post. Sending an Inbox message saying how great it was to reconnect or glad you have become Facebook friends may be considered odd. Basically those friends are there for your curiosity and viewing pleasure. They are what the great Greek philosopher Aristotle would describe as friendships of utility or pleasure. In other terms, it is self-centered interest that drives you to connect with them without a real interest in having a solid bond/relationship.
images-1Ambiguous Friends:

This is the category fitting the relationship with the person I brought up at the beginning of this article and is the most complicated of the three. Those are people you were good friends with at some point in your life but, because of moves, circumstance, and other factors that made it difficult to stay in touch, you do not ‘talk’ on any regular basis. Interactions with such friends when you find/reconnect with on Facebook is usually characterized by one or two Inbox message exchanges to let one another know how life has treated you. Messages usually end with something like: ‘it was great to hear from you and we have to stay in touch.’

But then what? More often than not, those friends, show up on your newsfeed regularly (probably because Facebook algorithms recognize they are ‘important’ since you messaged one another) and you watch their virtual lives roll by. However, you hesitate to remain in touch. Most times than not, you choose to never contact them again and your only connection is through newsfeeds and ‘likes.’ Also, the fact you were good friends at some point makes it ambiguous enough to wonder if you should make an effort to be in touch. And if you have a personality such as mine, you will tend to persevere and attempt additional contact before calling it quits.

“Messages usually end with something like: ‘it was great to hear from you and we have to stay in touch.’”

But there is a risk with taking such action (as there always is with ambiguous situations) because there is a good chance reaching out will not be reciprocated. So I took the risk and sent this person an Inbox message inquiring why they neglected the friendship and expressed hurt I did not hear back from them after two attempts. Here is their response:

“Hey Bilal don’t take it personal, life is busy sometimes I check messages and don’t have time to respond and forget they are there. I’m on the job market and traveling. Please don’t be the kind of friend that is high maintenance – the drama of the last email is a bit much for me…”

“It allowed me to distinguish between real friendships…and ambiguous friendships, which are characterized by shaky connections.”

Ouch. So much for taking a risk! But after I was done scratching my head as to how on earth my two line message expressing hurt that she did not respond is indication of drama and high maintenance (two descriptors about me I had never heard before) I realized her wording was very revealing. In fact, it allowed me to distinguish between real friendships, as defined more or less universally by philosophers and psychologists, and ambiguous friendships, which are characterized by shaky connections. Specifically, her choice of words reveal three different ways in which this relationship did not fit the characteristic of the most meaningful type of friendship – the one Aristotle describes as virtuous friendship. Aristotle believed such friends are rare, since they involve consistent effort in communication, personal sacrifice, and a genuine care for the other. Here is why the response lack the criteria for a friendship of virtue:

  • Don’t take it personal: Real/virtuous friendships are always personal. If you are not worthy of someone’s personal attention at some point in their lives (my two inbox messages were two years separated so I kind of gave this person time to respond) then you are a random person, an acquaintance at most.

  • imagesI forget they are there: If you forget someone has contacted you, then you are not really part of their lives. Would that person have the same memory lapse if it came from a more relevant person? Forgetting a message is really saying: ‘you are not of value to me and can be forgotten.’
  • Life is busy: That is a non-statement. Almost every single person who has any kind of job (or is looking for one) is busy. The important point is that, if we believe we are free individuals with agency, a choice is always being made as to what to do and not to do, to contact a friend or not contact a friend. In fact, there is clear data that indicates Americans are significantly less busy then they were 50 years ago.* But people feel more overwhelmed than they did a half century ago because of the explosion of leisure options and the almost infinite choices for distraction. The fact remains that when someone decides to spend two hours watching Netflix on a weekday night for
    example or chooses to Facebook the choice is a conscious one and the decision is willful. Furthermore, it takes time away from other options such as making an effort to stay in touch with people you care for. Put differently, my friend’s decision to respond by saying ‘life is busy’ after my reaching out for a second time tantamount to saying: ‘you are not a priority for me, even when you make an effort to reach out and are hurt by my not responding.’

images-2While it is hard to know who among your Facebook friends will fit that category until you actually take
the risk to find out by reinitiating contact we do know, based on data from the Pew Research Center, the average Facebook user has about 340 friends. And although it is highly unlikely a third of those are Aristotelian-like virtuous friends, let’s assume it is an even split for all categories. This means, if you agree with the points I have made in this article and are the ‘average’ Facebook user, it is likely you have 115 ‘uncertain’ friends on your Facebook. That is a lot of ambiguity in your life, don’t you think?


*In her book on time perception – Time Warped – Claudia Hammond discusses data from a 2010 study that shows the “Average American man has six to nine more hours more [italics not mine] free time every week” than he did 50 years ago and that “there is one chief way in which they use that longed-for extra free time. They watch more TV (p.288).”


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