All network, no friends?

Generation Y has never had it so good. Cheap flights, iPhones, Facebook and Twitter are allowing us to stay connected- physically and electronically- with the world in a unprecedented way. We revel in the opportunities that our parents may not have been afforded; we embrace the world and aspire to be- or become- good world citizens.

We study abroad, learn new languages, work in foreign lands (familiar and exotic) and dream of back-packing across distant continents. We usually have a sofa to stay on in a new city; at the very least an old university buddy or a kind friend-of-a-friend showing us around our latest conquest on the world map. From hotel recommendations to job offers, we rely on our extensive (and growing) networks more and more, and on increasingly advanced technologies to maintain them.

But as we move towards an increasingly mobile, instantly accessible and in some ways transient world, what happens to the important constants in our life? What happens to our relationships, particularly on a deeper level of friendship; a level where intimacy and acceptance has evolved over time and through an understanding of the wholeness of that person (beyond their Facebook or LinkedIn profile). In other words, what happens to friendships when the world- and seemingly more and more people in it- are accessible by the touch of a button but rarely in person?

Now, I’m not arguing that old, true friends are no longer around. Many of us rootless third culture kids (of different degrees) have managed to build and maintain such relationships despite distance and time. They are perhaps the childhood friends or university friends that you connected with deeply; had time to build a relationship with. Years may pass, e-mails may become infrequent, but the connection stays.

But increasingly we meet and get to know people in conferences, at international work places (where someone seems to leave every month) and through friends in foreign lands. Sometimes those people are just interesting connections or acquaintances; sometimes you ‘click’ and the early excitement of finding a new friend kicks in. As soon as this friendship has reached its very early bloom, it’s nipped in the bud and left to dwindle in some kind of friendship purgatory social network.

I’ll admit it, Facebook is my tool of choice for staying in contact with old friends, as well as new, but can such erratic communication really sustain friendships? Aren’t we missing something in giving up the intimacy of letters or even phone calls, let alone physical contact? Aren’t we trading in continuity and depth for excitement and breadth? Isn’t there something fundamentally sad about this transience and the difficulty of building stable and lasting friendships? It makes me wonder whether friend-wise people who have lived in the same place for most of their lives lead happier, more fulfilled lives…

Maybe on balance the sheer breadth of our friend-, and acquaintance networks make up for the relative difficulty of building life-long, deep friendships. Maybe we just have to work harder at friendships in an effort to overcome the fleeting of our modern, rootless lives. And there’s certainly more than a few things to say for the excitement and convenience of a big and ever-growing group of globally connected friends. In a strange way they keep us rooted in our rootlessness and make us appreciate real friendship even more when we see it (grab it while you can!).

Maybe absence really does make the nomad’s heart grow fonder.

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2 thoughts on “All network, no friends?

  1. Your post answers a lot of its own questions. I struggle often with the frustration of not having my friends in the same city – because I haven’t lived ‘at home’ for many years now, and because in any case my friends are like me, and move around a great deal too. But the point I think we miss is that even though we may not be as cosy in our ever-changing environs as our friends from school who stayed in the same town ever after – we definitely have more enriched, varied and ultimately satisfying lives. Whether we feel as ‘fulfilled’ as the other person – that’s purely a matter of perspective. After all, the zen master never leaves the mountaintop, but does that make her any less enlightened?

    And ultimately, what modern networked-ness reinforces are the same values that were imparted before all this technology entered our lives: that you have to work hard and invest in the relationships you care about, no matter what. The people I want to see badly enough – I’ll still fly out to see them, no matter where they are. That’s what my vacation-time is for.

  2. Absolutely. I totally agree, but I guess what made me think about this dilemma even more was the relative difficulty of making new friends– you almost notice it more there where the transience of our lives makes it that much more difficult to form new bonds (even if you work hard at maintaining the old ones). On the other hand the fact that we even have access to such a varied, international group of acquaintances (and potential friends) is in itself a function of our nomad lifestyle.

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