Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship in the Age of the Internet (FINAL PAPER)

Zite Ezeh

The internet is a tool that has revolutionized every aspect of modern life. It’s almost impossible to live in this day and age without utilizing or interacting with the internet in some capacity, and a particularly influential sphere of the internet has been that of social media. In this paper, social media is a term I am using to encompass everything from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to video platforms such as YouTube, virtual worlds such as Club Penguin, and even blogs and forum-based platforms such as Reddit. Social media has given us level of access that we as humans have never before had. Access to information, access to services, access to entertainment, and even access to friendship. Social media has allowed us to not only keep updated on the lives of people we know, but on the lives of complete strangers as well. We have a 24-hours a day, 7 days a week access to people’s lives, and it has undeniably altered the way we communicate with and relate to one another.

At its very beginning, social media was a tool that people used to keep updated on the lives of their ‘in real life’ (IRL) friends. Platforms such as Myspace, Facebook, and Friendster were akin to the contacts app, or a photo album—just an online version rather than an offline one. As social media has evolved throughout the years, it has become a space for people to not only keep up with their IRL friends, but to make completely new online friends. In fact, there are some social media platforms, like Reddit, for example, where almost none of the users know each other in real life, and the culture of such spaces is often very different from spaces like Facebook where people know and share community with most of the people they are interacting with. It is also important to mention the vital role anonymity plays in online dynamics. Platforms like Reddit are ones where the profiles are generally anonymous, and so on top of not knowing each other, there are also no perceivable clues as to what kind of person one is interacting with. This anonymity can be emboldening to many, but it can also limit the ways in which people are able to truly connect. And then there are platforms such as Twitter, that fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. While Twitter is used as a space for people to connect with those they know, it is also largely used as a space to connect with strangers and make what people call ‘Twitter friends.’ The profiles people have on Twitter have, in the past, generally not been anonymous, but that has been changing very rapidly over the last few years with the rise of different sub-communities throughout the network. Currently, in my experience as a Twitter user, I would say that about half of the people I follow and interact with are IRL friends and the other half are people I found online, and I think the same would be true for most other users. Having this balance between IRL friends and online friends (I am hesitant to call them ‘strangers,’ as I feel that Twitter has a much more personal aspect to it than a lot of other social media), creates a very unique dynamic when it comes to making and maintaining friendships—something we will look more closely at later on in the paper.

In order to critically analyze online friendships and how they develop, I must first clarify how I am defining friendship in this paper. Throughout the course of this class, we have looked at the work of many philosophers and studied varying conceptions of friendship, but they all seem to build in some form off of the core Aristotelian and Platonic postulations of friendship. In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines the multiple ways in which friendship can manifest between people. He defines friendship as a mutually understood “reciprocated goodwill,” and asserts that for two people to form a friendship, they “must have goodwill to each other, wish goods and be aware of it, from [pleasure, utility, or virtue].”[1] This definition signifies not only that friendship is an occurrence between those who view each other as equals, but also that it does not transpire randomly—rather, friendship is the result of actions one takes with specific intentions. Aristotle and Plato then both go a step further, not only defining friendship, but making clear distinctions between its different types. In the works of both philosophers, friendship is separated into three categories that, while described in varying terms, seem to be of similar natures.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle classifies the three types of friendship as “those who love for pleasure, utility, [and] the friendship of good people similar in virtue.”[2] Aristotle characterizes friendships of utility and friendships of pleasure in essentially the same manner. He makes the point that at the core of both of these forms of friendships, is selfishness—the need for personal gain. These types of friendship are fueled by a love and care for others that is only dependent on what those people can provide for oneself (whether that be enjoyment or usefulness), rather than on who those people are as individuals with intrinsic value. Aristotle stresses the conditional nature of friendships based on pleasure or utility. He believes that their survival is dependent on the immediate wants of both parties being met, whereas friendship based on virtue is dependent only on both people being good. He describes friendship of virtue as a friendship between people who are both morally ‘good’ and therefore make the choice to love each other because of that goodness. And because their goodness that causes them to find all good things loveable, they will, in turn, continue to love each other as long as they are both good.[3]

In “Philia in Plato,” Dimitri El Murr’s chapter in Stern-Gillet and Gurtler’s Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, El Murr looks closely at the Platonic conceptions of friendship. On page 9, he writes that Plato categorizes the three forms of friendship as “(1) friendship from resemblance, (2) friendship from opposites, and (3) a mixed friendship.”[4] Plato illustrates mixed friendship as being a form of friendship in which the people struggle to balance the desire for them both to become more virtuous and ethical with the desire to be provided with some form of personal satisfaction, whereas friendship from opposites is portrayed as a friendship built on one’s desire to form a connection some somebody who is dissimilar to them. And then there is friendship from resemblance, which El Murr explains perfectly as “two souls, however different they may be, [that] resemble one another inasmuch as both desire, for itself and for the sake of the other soul, to become as virtuous as possible.”[5] So with mixed friendship, regardless of how similar two people may be in terms of interests, behaviors, actions, they are tied together by a bond of virtue, and a that virtue is both the root of their resemblance, and is more powerful than any physical desires that could have the power to corrupt a friendship.

While the categorizations of Plato might look quite different from those of Aristotle on paper, in essence, they are actually quite indistinguishable from one another. They both hold that, in its truest and purest form, friendship must be rooted in virtue and a mutual, unconditional love for the other, simply because they are. Even in their postulations concerning non-virtuous friendships, Plato and Aristotle echo each other. Aristotle’s friendship of utility is akin to Plato’s friendship from opposites—both looking at a form of friendship in which people only ‘care’ for the other because of what they can be provided with through the friendship. This could be anything from a specific service, to simply just being different and providing one with a means through which they can diversify their own life. In turn, friendship of pleasure is similar to mixed friendship in that they regard a form of friendship that is fundamentally rooted in the desire to gain some form of personal gratification. Friendship of virtue and friendship from resemblance, on the other hand, are similar in that they are based on virtue and on a mutual desire for both friends to grow in that virtue and goodness. These kinds of friendships are not contingent on receiving something from the other party, but rather, on both parties continuing to be good and to encourage each other in their virtue.

The nature of online friendships is far from a monolith. One can observe all three types of friendships (utility/opposites, pleasure/mixed, and virtue/resemblance) transpire through online connections, and the characteristics of the platform through which that connection is sought can heavily affect the type of relationship that arises. Throughout their various works, Aristotle and Plato repeatedly refer to friendship as a ‘love for…’, prefacing the idea of friendship with a declaration that any action taken by a friend is not only taken with intentional goodwill, but is rooted in love. That love could be based on something virtuous, or on something immoral, but the fact remains that there must be love. If we are understanding the postulations of Plato and Aristotle to be true and applicable to friendship in all its forms, the question then becomes: what are the various forms of online friendship rooted in? To answer this, I will be looking specifically at platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, that, contrastingly from Facebook, involve a much greater presence of connections that are solely online. Because Facebook, by nature, is meant to be a platform for one to stay connected to their IRL friends, it would be delusive to generally categorize the relationships on that site as ‘online friendships.’ While there are, undoubtedly, some exceptions to the norm and people who maintain online friendships through Facebook, I believe that analyzing platforms like Twitter and Instagram can teach us much more about the ways people form online connections.

Twitter and Instagram are social media platforms with two contrasting approaches to connecting people: words and pictures (respectively). While words and pictures are indeed present in both spheres, the focus of Twitter is the text that people write (referred to as ‘tweets’), while pictures are very secondary and not used nearly as much to express oneself, whereas on Instagram, the focus is on pictures and the photos people post, while the captions (the words accompanying those photos) are not nearly as important. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I do not believe that to be applicable in all scenarios. Many of the relationships formed via social media are not actually friendships, but rather, transactions—a picture in exchange for a ‘like’ with no real form of connection. If friendship must be rooted in love (whether virtuous or unethical) to be real, then it would stand that—especially on a platform such as Instagram where, often, all one really knows about another person is how they look—real friendships would be extremely difficult to cultivate. When simply interacting with someone’s photo there is no opportunity for love or for mutual goodwill to come into being because it is not two people that are interacting, rather, it is one person that is simply interacting with a photograph. A photograph that cannot feel and cannot reciprocate anything back to them. And the illusion of social media is that people believe they are actually connecting with other individuals and forming friendships, even when there is no love or mutuality involved. That being said, I do believe that there are also cases where the relationships formed online are indeed real friendships and not merely transactional, but within those scenarios, I find that the friendships formed are often ones rooted in unvirtuous principles.

On Twitter, there are various categorizations people have for those who follow them. Somebody who simply follows another’s account is called a ‘follower’, whereas two people who follow each other are called ‘mutuals.’ Mutuals tend to interact directly and publicly with each other; they have real online conversations, they laugh together, rant to each other, and even connect on other platforms as well. It is clear that many mutuals have real connections with each other and truly care about each other’s wellbeing. The problem arises though, when one analyzes the type of people that are mutuals of each other. Often, what we see is that people will only follow back accounts and become mutuals with those that either have a lot of followers or have access to the certain sub-communities one wishes to join, then they use the public nature of being mutuals to gain more exposure for themselves and their own account. And while mutuals can grow to love and care about each other, the friendships made in this manner are ones of utility rather than of virtue. These connections are formed because it is believed they will be beneficial to both parties and that in the end there will be some form of gain, and without the presence of that mutual gain, these kinds of friendships die quite easily.

On Instagram, I also see the potential for real friendships to emerge despite the platform’s very transactional nature. While most people simply like photos and keep scrolling, there are those who still reach out and attempt to forge connections with others. The issues that often emerge in cases like this though, are because the driving force behind why a lot of people are reaching out to others is visual pleasure—people befriending other people solely because they find them attractive. This does not come as a surprise considering the fact that physical appearance has become the single most important thing on Instagram, but it poses a threat to the longevity of any friendships that are formed this way. Physical attractiveness (especially as it pertains to societal beauty standards) is a very fleeting thing that can be lost with age, or even in an instant. When people form friendships that are rooted in the pleasure of both fitting into societal beauty standards and experiencing the attractiveness of another person, they are building a relationship on something that is too weak to withstand the test of time. The examples I have given are not to say that a virtuous friendship would be impossible to establish via the internet, it would merely be difficult. Establishing an online friendship rooted in virtue and the love of goodness would require its own specific circumstances. I have witnessed people connecting on social media over the art they have created, the music they have made, and the stories they have written. This is different from friendships formed simply because of attraction or potential usefulness because through art, people are able to expose a part of their true selves. Connecting over the creativity we each possess allows for the emergence of relationships in which people truly understand each other.

I would like to end this paper with a personal friendship story of my own regarding social media and true connections. When I was much younger, I used to frequent a website called OurWorld. OurWorld is an online virtual world where everyone makes an avatar and then proceeds to just live life virtually and meet other users. OurWorld is level based (from level 1-100), so everybody starts at level one when they join, but by completing challenges, socializing often, and winning prizes, users are able to gradually level up. A few months into my joining OurWorld, I met another user who went by the username ‘miztee_01’. We met at an event we were both attending at another user’s house and quickly became friends. Before long, we began speaking every day. I would return home from school, log onto OurWorld, and hang out with my friend, miztee_01, until my mother made me get off of the computer. This went on for many months, until one day, I realized that I did not know anything about my friend aside from the fact that she was a girl and that she was two years older than me (she was fourteen while I was twelve). I then began to think about the nature of our conversations and realized that despite talking every day, we had never really had conversations of substance. Everything we conversed with each other about was related to OurWorld, which was a fake world where we lived fake lives. The anonymity of relating to each other through avatars had created a barrier we were not even aware of for a long time. Finally, I decided to ask my friend if I could add her on Facebook and speak to her there. Much to my delight, she said yes, and so we added each other and began talking on Facebook instead. Within the first day of having her on Facebook, I learnt more about her than I had in the many months prior that we had been friends. Being able to connect on a platform where there was no more anonymity broke down the barriers that OurWorld had set up between us. Not only were we able to now see each other’s faces and experience that aspect of human connection, but we also learnt about each other’s families, cultures, personal lives, and interests. The nature of our relationship shifted drastically, and we began to see each other not as avatars on a virtual world, but as real people with real intrinsic value, and to this day we are still good friends. We have spoken about meeting many times, but she lives in the Philippines so it has not yet been possible, but still, we do not give up hope. Our relationship was able to evolve once we took the conscious step to value each other as individuals, regardless of what we could provide to each other. Online friendship, while easy to manifest in unvirtuous ways, is something that, if acted upon with intention and a good heart, can be the birth of something extremely beautiful.

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), p. 121.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 122.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 124.

[4] Dimitri El Murr, “Philia in Plato,” in Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, ed. Suzanne Stern-Gillet and Gary M. Gurtler (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), p. 9.

[5] Dimitri El Murr, “Philia in Plato,” p. 12.

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