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.