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Opinion

Facebook's shadow culture

Self-promoting apps on Facebook are deceptively displacing the gold standard of trust with a fiat currency of clout. We need a renaissance of intimacy and commitment.

By Emily Walshe / June 11, 2009



Brookville, N.Y.

I remember the day I became blood sisters with my friend Kristine. We planned for weeks; but in the end, nobody noticed us steal into the cornfield, prick our prepubescent palms, and press them firmly together.

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Kris is now on Facebook and she's pestering me to join. She's one of the 200 million Facebook users who tend networks of friends online. I am among a dwindling number who don't.

A common criticism of such social-networking sites is that they cheapen friendship. But they're doing more than reducing its value: They're creating a shadow culture of friendship that spins cosmic sympathy into crowd sourcing.

With greater connectedness has come the ability for people to influence one another with more speed and efficiency. Social-networking sites – spurred by a resurgent "Secret" interpretation of the ancient Greek doctrine "like attracts like" – have become a potent medium for mass persuasion.

The age-old law of attraction is manifest and multiplied to the nth degree in social-media realms. Facebook's exponential success lies in its ability to get its users to do the work for them – friends persuading friends to join, comment, and feed. Twitterers compete to attract followers – 140 characters at a time. On sites like eHarmony, affinity is an algorithmic compatibility coefficient.

Friendship, like marriage, is a big attraction – a deep commitment to a nonblood relation. It is a relationship predicated on trust and nurtured, over time, through physical and metaphysical connection.

Critics consider the phenomena of chronic "friending" to be a kind of memetic narcissism, and excessive self-regard is surely part of its appeal. But these ever-widening concentric circles of congeniality are subtly turning the desire for friendship into sinister temptations for power or profit.

In these labyrinths of mutuality, the pulls and pokes of influence are embedded in Facebook's highly targeted Groups and Notes. New "apps" are turning Facebook into a colossal interpersonal ploy that, ever-so-subtly, blurs the distinction between community and commodity. On Kris's page, I can browse her lemonade stand – a widget that pays her when people buy items from her list of favorite things. I can link to her brother and buy his garage band's music. Or I can help out Afghan refugees by purchasing "gifts," such as a virtual United Nations tent for $10.

Influence is the elephant in the chat room. Self-promoting and moneymaking apps are deceptively displacing the gold standard of trust with a fiat currency of clout.

As I watch our kids acquire the habit of thinking and experiencing on behalf of an audience, I worry that they won't develop the wherewithal to effectively relate one-on-one, or to appreciate people as people and not as payoff. I see their Ponzified friend-building schemes and resent the ephemera of new-age amity. To them, friend is a technical term – a time suck.

"A friend to all," said Aristotle, "is a friend to none." We need a renaissance of intimacy and commitment. Now is the time to renew, in our hearts and in our souls and in our First Life experience, the perennial sense that friendship is both miracle and magic, and treat it less as cohort and more as covenant.

Emily Walshe is a librarian and professor at Long Island University in New York.

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