What’s a “friend” these days?

Max Kalehoff writes in today’s Mediapost Online Spin that he’s overwhelmed by “friends” on various social networking sites.

We’re experiencing friends overload, and it’s a tragedy of the commons. The practice of friending has morphed way beyond the term’s original intention and utility. And that is why I declare friends — at least in the social-networking context — passé.

…Let me be clear: Social networks are very much alive and well, but our traditional, generalized notion of friend is dead. When online friendships begin to scale artificially — such as randomly or via the all-too-easy click of a button — they run the risk of overwhelming us, causing the aggregate value of deeper social-network friendships to erode.

I would add that in trivializing the meaning of the word “friend,” we’re also changing the word’s definition, and this has cultural ramifications beyond what we might think. My 22-year old daughter recently went through a personal trauma and learned that her online “friends” weren’t really friends at all. She won’t use that word lightly again.

When we examine culture, we must always look for unintended consequences and especially those that alter the definition of words that we use to communicate. A young person today reading the Robert Lewis Stevenson quote referenced by Kalehoff (“A friend is a present you give to yourself.”) would view it differently than, say, my mother, and this kind of re-writing of the source code of our culture is more serious than we realize.

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