Friendship, virtually

Friendship, virtually

Friendship, virtually

In this digital age, where we can ‘friend’ or ‘unfriend’ someone at the click of a button, Lakshmi Palecanda wonders if various social media platforms are redefining our modern-day notion  of friendship.

The other day, I was in a class with a bunch of 12-year-olds. “Ma’am, can I be your friend?” asked a bright-eyed young girl. “Of course, you can,” I smiled, making room in my heart for her. “I mean, on Facebook,” she said innocently, stunning me into silence.
The little girl’s question brought to the forefront of my mind a question that has been troubling me. What is the state of true friendship today?

In school, I read the story of Damon and Pythias, two young Greeks who lived in the 5th century BC. They once travelled to Syracuse, which was ruled by Dionysius I at the time. Pythias was accused of plotting against Dionysius and sentenced to death. On hearing the sentence, Pythias asked to go home to see his family one last time.

Damon offered to take his place in prison until he came back. Dionysius allowed Pythias to go on the condition that if he did not return as promised, Damon would be put to death instead. Therefore, when Pythias was still not back by the day of the execution, Dionysius prepared to execute Damon.

Just as Damon was about to be killed, Pythias returned. He told the story of how pirates had captured his ship on its journey back to Syracuse and thrown him overboard. He had swum to shore and made his way to Syracuse as fast as he could, to save his friend. The story goes that Dionysius was so pleased with their friendship that he pardoned both men.

This kind of friendship is inspiring, but is it likely to occur these days? The deep bond between the two men was formed probably through bonding, aided by close proximity, over a long period of time. These days, all of us are ships that pass at night — a glimpse, a smile, a handshake, and then it is on to something and someone else. Furthermore, there weren’t as many distractions as there are today. Damon wasn’t attending a million classes or interviews, and Pythias wasn’t stressed out about his work and EMIs. So, don’t hold your breath until you meet such friends.

A truer picture of today’s friendship is another story I heard recently. Two friends had to travel together through a forest where a bear lived. Just before they entered the forest, one of them knelt down to retie his shoe laces more securely. Looking at him, his friend said, “I don’t think you can run fast enough to escape the bear if he does attack.”

Without looking up, the other man said, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!” Now, this is the kind of friendship we are all familiar with.

Distant intimacy

The dictionary defines ‘Friendship’ as a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people, and a ‘Friend’ as a person known well to another and regarded with liking, affection and loyalty. Mutual affection grows with time, and friendships that mature over time, last forever. Shared experiences also enhance liking and loyalty, which is why close proximity can make for strong friendships.

It used to be said that, at the end of your life, if you could count the number of friends you had on one hand, you were lucky. Another popular saying was that you couldn’t choose your relatives, but you could choose your friends.

Today, however, time is a commodity that is out of stock more often than not, and we spend more time with our computers than we do with any person. Therefore, we hardly have any time to make friends. But funnily enough, each of us have literally hundreds of friends!


Well, the word ‘Friend’ has lost all its original meaning and connotations, and it is now used to describe both real and virtual relationships loosely. For example, a friend you make on a networking site could be somebody you grew up with. It could perhaps be a soul-mate. Or, it may be somebody who you met, with whom you found mutual ground. It could also be someone who would be beneficial for you to know, to ask for a favour later.

Or, it might be a person it would be profitable to know about, you know, to name-drop at appropriate times. The ‘friend’ might possibly be a ‘frenemy’ whose life you want to keep tabs on. It may well be a casual acquaintance. It might even be a casual acquaintance of a casual acquaintance. Why, the friend could even be someone whose very existence you have no clue about!

Therefore, social networking does increase your exposure to different kinds of people. However, the problem with having all these virtuo-real friends is that it is hard to have a real relationship with them. Everyone on these sites is projecting himself/herself as s/he wants to be viewed, and not in his/her true colours, so there is no true meeting of minds.

Moreover, a friendship includes disagreements, which are suppressed on the social media. (Just imagine ‘disliking’ somebody’s post — you might as well ‘unfriend’ them!). And any friend who you cannot borrow a few bucks from at a pinch is hardly a real friend, right? So, these days, most people tend to classify their friends as ‘real’ versus ‘virtual’ friends.

Language of friendship

However, what happens in the future is anybody’s guess. Will we lose our ability to know true friends who will stand by you at all times, from fakes, who are only about ‘liking’ and ‘friending’? Will we lose our ability to have a healthy face-to-face discussion on matters, and become addicted to spouting other people’s ideas and passing on other people’s posts?

Will we become a world composed of only ‘posters’ and ‘tweeters’, with their attendant followers? Or, will we retain some sanity, and form a world which encourages everyone to think and give his/her meaningful input? Will we all lead lonely lives while having thousands of virtual friends? This remains to be seen.

My own experience is that I was dragged on to Facebook (FB) by a well-meaning relative. I wasn’t too happy about going on FB, but then I thought, ‘Hey, what am I going to lose?’ My sanity, that is what I ended up losing.

As soon as I joined, there were a deluge of people wanting to befriend me. Before I got a swollen head, I realised that these were mostly relatives. There went the saying about being able to choose my friends. But then I got to connect with a few friends, and I began to feel good.

This feeling lasted only until friends and relatives of relatives and friends began dropping friend requests. I was flattered initially, until I realised that they did this to everybody, not just me. Still, to ‘friend’ or not to ‘friend’ became the question. It seemed rude to turn down overtures of friendship, so I ‘friended’ them more often than not.

That was when it got out of hand. My list of fake ‘friends’ became huge, infested with people I didn’t know, and what’s more, didn’t want to know. I now hate going on Facebook, because it is like entering a room full of strangers who are shouting at the top of their voices, and trying to spot the two people I know, in the melee.

And since I don’t want to offend anyone by ‘unfriending’ them, I am stuck with them all until I close out my FB account altogether. I’m planning on doing just that, and can’t wait until I’m completely and happily friendless.

Once that happens, I will be able to connect, truly connect, with the people I like and who like me in return. I may call those people my soul-mates, pals, buddies, companions, acquaintances, or even comrades. But, should I think twice before calling them my ‘friends’?