What Does “Friend” Mean?

closeThis post was published 12 years 8 months 26 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

we love taking pictures togetherImage by Veronica Belmont via Flickr This was inspired by a recent experience I had when I went back to Evanston, IL for the NHSI Musical Theatre extension presentation.  I’d rather not talk about the details — I’ve decided not to blog about that part of my life, despite its significance, as it’s rather painful — but I did get to thinking.  This is what I came up with in the time since.

Social networking websites have really degraded the concept of friendship.  I suppose it’s not their fault entirely — other things like amateur radio have been doing the same things (namely competing based on how many contacts a person has) for decades — but none of the previous offenders used the term “friends” for the number being compared.

See, MySpace and Facebook both have a lot of users, and substantial subsets of those users often compare their friend list size with that of other people they know, and try to get the biggest number within their social circle.  So we have people you barely know sending (and accepting) friend requests to (and from) you.

Now, I have always used the term “friend” to refer to people with whom I feel connected and with whom I have something of a relationship beyond simple collaboration and camaraderie (that is, beyond a “professional” or “working” relationship).  Those with whom I feel a personal connection, I suppose.  So now I see that there’s no way for me to say that these colleagues, classmates, or whatever are just those; everybody I know (including family) is a “friend” in the eyes of a social networking site.  That’s annoying, very annoying.

See, it all boils down to this: I left Cherubs nearly two weeks ago. (And I still haven’t written down all my experiences… I know, for shame.)  I had thought I made a lot of friends there, but that was really wishful thinking as it turns out.  In fact, I was fooling myself into thinking I had fit in much better than I had in reality.  Sensing that I had been an outsider, I didn’t want to accept that fact — or admit it to myself — and so I began thinking of all these people who greeted me courteously, professionally, in passing, as “friends”.

The Facebook definition of “friend” has invaded my thinking, and it’s probably affecting a lot of people.

Those aren’t “friends” I made at Cherubs; what had seemed like real connections were really just the superficial, cordial niceties of working together in a focused group.  They are acquaintances at best, strangers (yes, I managed to avoid even learning some people’s names) at worst.  The strangers are the ones I recognize as having been in the program but can’t name or put in a role from the shows we did the last week of July.

Suffice it to say I was pretty disappointed, after the presentation ended, at the lack of warmth from those who had been my colleagues and cohorts for five weeks.  More importantly, one boy who had seemed like a friend seemed more interested in the videos I took for him than in me.  By him in particular I felt used.

So a “friend” is not a friend.  Not even if you mentally drop the quotes.

I suppose managing relationships is a skill that comes with experience, and isn’t innate to the human mind.  My parents aren’t exactly what you’d call socialites, and really nobody in my family is.  So far as I’m aware, everyone I know can count the number of friends (not “friends”) they have using ten fingers or less, and probably use less than five.  I know I can.  Unfortunately I have been unable to connect with any of my real friends for most of the summer, since we’ve all been busy and/or out of town.

My point here is that I’ve learned the hard (emotionally) way to not think of everyone as a friend, and not even as a “friend”.  Facebook may use the term.  MySpace and Twitter can (though Twitter uses the word “Following” now).  I most certainly won’t.  (I think I put more detail than I wanted to in this post, but it really does help illustrate what I’m talking about, so…  I’ll leave it all in.)

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I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.


  1. Well said! I had a post along these lines brewing in my head, but you’ve said for me. I certainly use the word ‘friend’ in a different way online than I do in ‘the real world’.

  2. I hear you there. I believe that the word these websites are look for is “aquaintance”. There are so many people out there, as you appear to, that value their friends, and truly may have only a few “real” friends that they would do anything for. I know several people, and there are about three or four (maybe) that I am that kind of friend to.

    Kudos to you.

  3. Knowing the Cherubs program as I do… and the wave of emotions that hits all the students for the next four years as they experience first the end of the program and then the last year of high school and then the onslaught of college: Keep in mind that those words – friend, community, network – will all have vastly different meanings as you experience those different and changing communities. I would also not judge your fellow cherubs too harshly based on their actions at the end of the program. The end of that program is emotionally draining. People don’t act the same when they are emotionally drained.

    What I see as the primary difference between Facebook and face-to-face friendships is: Facebook doesn’t allow for a break. People need space from and closeness to each other in measured amounts, and facebook provides this odd server/client relationship that serves one friend with closeness while it lets the other friend rest or coast in privacy. It’s friendship as convenience. Which may seem like it’s cheapening the idea friendship, and to some, it certainly does. On the other hand, people need that level of space, even in close friendships or professional relationships. The other side of this phenomenon of client/server friendship is quite positive – it enables teachers who have many students or old friends and family to keep in touch when they are far, far apart or after long stretches of time and growth. It means that when a dormant connection is needed, that dormant connection is accessible. My own relationships with my younger sisters are so much closer because we are able to video chat over facebook. It’s not a replacement for being where they live, but it is SOME connection where otherwise there might be NONE.

    I guess I would say – don’t let one experience make you close the door on reaching out to people. Taking that risk of trust means, yes, that you could be betrayed or disappointed, but it also means that you could find a close connection of trust. Use the experience to develop your understanding of how relationships ebb and flow. Facebook enables communication like a widgetized cellphone, but no, it is not a new model for human communication. That is left to the humans. Facebook can keep those lines of communication open, but it’s up to you and your acquaintance to determine the quality of the relationship over time. If you close this door now because you feel hurt, does that mean you won’t want the door open later when you have gained more experience?

    What the word friend means isn’t just a question for facebook or humanity in the Web 2.0 world. Friendship is redefined every time a new friendship is formed.

    You know how sometimes superheroes have this superpower that is also their super weakness? Well, You’re a smart feller, and I see a lot of myself in you – your power is that you can be this sensitive to the delicacy of relationships. You see how they work before others are necessarily aware of what is happening. That means people will probably hurt you, because they don’t see that hurt coming. Sometimes it’s okay to let them a little bit, and understand that they don’t mean it. But be thankful that you are that sensitive to this world – it enables you to see it, to listen to it, to articulate it in your own work. It will serve you tremendously.

  4. Thank you all for your responses!

    MartinSFP, was I good enough to replace the post you had planned? You know, expanding upon other bloggers’ posts is always welcome. 😉

    Anonymous, I do indeed have very few good friends. So far as I know, my parents have only a few good friends each, as well. The same with my grandparents. I guess it just runs in the family…

    Nick, I think you must be one of the better friends I made at Cherubs. So far you’re the first one to stop by here and leave a comment. (Of course, you’re also the most web-savvy person I met there…) Thank you again for the wonderful comment, and I’ll do my best to take all of it with me as I continue to develop relationships. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t let one experience (which doesn’t seem as bad now as it did when I wrote this) stop me from trying to make friends. It’s too good a feeling when everything goes right. Meanwhile, I’ll just start using the word “acquaintance”, as Anonymous suggested, rather than “friend” in all but the most exceptional cases.

  5. Hmmm? I guess that's why I just call them FB friends… And I keep those individuals to a minimum (classmates, acquaintances, etc.). Nothing more, nothing less.

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