Sunday, March 21, 2010

I do not think it means what you think it means

After giving you a second to think what movie I was quoting in the title, I would like to talk to you about the word "friend" (and not the word "inconceivable", as you might have thought). I believe that over the last decade or so, the internet has changed what people talk about when they use the word "friend". The definition changed so much, we even had to invent new words that didn't exist before, like "to unfriend". It used to be that most people had very few real friends, but now we all have lots of them on various social networks, in guilds, and other virtual places. Friends have gone from being something precious to being an utility.

I blame social networks like Facebook. Social networks want you to have lots of friends, because their primary function is having everybody advertise various goods and services to their friends. Recommendations from friends are much better advertising than paid-for publicity. But if everybody just has a few precious friends, you never get a big network running in which one guy's recommendation snowballs through thousands of people. So Facebook is trying to "help" you to "find" friends. As I said, I followed one of these helpful links and ended up spamming 288 people from my mail contacts with Facebook friend invites. Ooops.

Leveraging the power of my blog, I have tons of friends on Facebook. But obviously I don't have hundreds of true friends. According to Robin Dunbar my neocortex is actually too small to possibly have more than 150 friends or other stable social relationships, and I need a lot of those 150 slots for work-related social relationships. But then, I gained a lot of "Facebook friends" when I blogged about My Tribe. We fertilize each other's farms, and collect stork feathers and shells on each other's islands, because the game is set up in a way that helping your friends is advantageous to yourself. Having "friends" is how these games work, no matter if the relationship with those friends is totally superficial.

In World of Warcraft I am still in the same guild I signed the guild charter of 5 years ago, on the day the server opened. And there are people in that guild I would call my friends, as much as that is possible in an online social relationship. But I also observed in that guild and in other guilds the phenomenom of guild hopping, people using a guild to advance to a point where switching to a different guild is better for them. Such behavior resembles the utilitarian thinking about Facebook friends a lot more than it resembles true friendship. "You're my friend if you play a healer in our guild raids" isn't much different from "You're my friend if you play My Tribe too".

I do not think "friend" means what this new generation think it means. We might be connected to a lot more people now that nominally are our "friends". But in reality these are often just "people I temporarily share a common interest with", and the word "friend" in its original meaning is far too strong to describe that relationship. Can you think of a better word?

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