Facebook and the solitary practice of friendship

By Liam Heneghan

What kind of happiness does technology procure then? And why do people remain both enthralled and unsatisfied by it? (Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life)

To be a friend to many people in the complete kind of friendship is not possible (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII)

There is a nice moment in Desmond Morris’ documentary The Human Zoo where, as he ponders the means by which the human animal deals with dense urban living, he hoists his address book and declares: “This is his [the urban dweller’s] personal tribe!” No doubt if he were writing the documentary today he would make the same point by recourse to his Facebook page.

Facebook provides us a convenient mnemonic device for keeping track of family and acquaintances. More than this, of course, it offers the means to friendship itself. We can carry out a range of cordial tasks on Facebook: we can post, comment, like, poke (does this even exist anymore?), chat, re-share, or indeed, if we incline to do so, quietly monitor the lives of our friends.

FacebookLJH2013Assuming that the nature of friendship has not budged much since Aristotle wrote about it in the Nicomachean Ethics, this means that in order for Facebook to serve be a one-stop companionship-shop it must allow for friendships based upon use, pleasure, and finally should facilitate the mutual exchange of well-wishing between the virtuous. There is more to say about this, but at first pass this can translate into commercial acquaintanceships, mutual affinities between those who share an interest, and finally the reciprocation of mutual respect between people of fine character – besties, in other words.

One of the implications of Facebook use, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is that is slows the decay-rate of friendship. Facebook allows us to collate intimates from the fragmented geographies of our contemporary lives and to sustain contact with friends from our past with whom we might otherwise only have sporadic contact. In doing so, Facebook may be, in fact, just one of a progression of technologies that allow us to keep track of our personal human networks (our “tribe”) when these extend beyond the so-called “Dunbar’s number”, that is, those 150 people predicted to be within the “natural” limit of our information-retention ability. Dunbar’s observations were based upon a supposed general relationship between the size of a primate brain’s neocortex and the size of the average social group. Dunbar’s Number seemingly finds support in analysis of social aggregations of hunter-gatherer tribes, military units, and even Christmas card networks. Lending further support is Facebook’s own assessment that the average number of friends per account is between 120 and 130.

One can, of course, have considerably more “friends” than this on Facebook. I have about 500 and when I go through my list there are almost none that I have not a reasonably solid connection to: family, pals, some students, former students, colleagues that I am especially fond of, and finally some acquaintances that I admittedly only have virtual knowledge of, though these are relatively few. This is considerably beyond Dunbar’s number, but even on Facebook there is seemingly an upper limit beyond which one is increasingly interacting with strangers. To illustrate: on a trip to India a couple of years ago a colleague who has over 2000 friends on Facebook forgot her password. To verify the account she was invited to identify several of her “friends’ which she could not do.

The hallmark of technologies that allow us to have more than 150 familiars is that they increase the efficiency of the processes required for social bonding. It takes less time to “like” my mother’s Facebook comment about her recent trip to Brussels than it does to call her, and both “liking” and skyping demand less time than visiting her kitchen in Dublin! So, innovations that enhance the time efficiency involved in maintaining networks free up the brain to accomodate a larger circle of chums. These innovations, arguably, include language itself which Robin Dunbar and colleagues claim is more time-efficient than social grooming. Assuming that the sequence goes from physical grooming (think here of primates fingering through the pelt of a neighbor) to language to telephone…and so on to Facebook, then the new virtual networking tools emerge at the end of a respectable pedigree of social contrivances.

At least it can be said that with Facebook one gets the social juices without ingesting the nits and other ectoparasites associated with the more primordial forms of primate grooming.


Now, this is all well and good but what accounts for the unsettling feeling that some of us share that Facebook and other social networking tools are not providing all the required vitamins of friendship. The concern is that Facebook is, in fact, just one of the innumerable fetishistic things we do to distract ourselves from the harder task of cultivating our best capabilities. In reflecting on the older social technologies, for instance spoken language, one recalls that a person can become especially adept at them: one can be a skilled orator or a notable conversationalist, but can using Facebook become a source of a unique human excellence? Perhaps excellence in Facebooking is demonstrated by using an appropriate ratio of likes to written comments? Or perhaps the appropriate comic timing of status updating? Another way of expressing the concern is to wonder if Facebook is worrisome precisely because it makes something like expertise at friendship too easy, too readily and conveniently available? That is, rather than not being good enough at replicating friendship has it, rather, become, confusingly, all too good at it?

Furthermore, has Facebook commodified friendship? The price we pay is not only in the cash-investment in the supporting technologies required to service one’s account (computer, smart phone, or even the new Facebook phone) but there is a price also paid in the sort of faith-investment entailed in going down the virtual friendship rabbit-hole: the confidence that spending time will enhance happiness.

A helpful way to frame and address the issue of Facebook’s ability to seemingly add and subtract from friendship simultaneously is by means of Albert Borgmann’s “device paradigm”. Borgmann is a German born American philosopher, who teaches at the University of Montana. In his classic critique of modern technology, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984) Borgmann investigates a “debilitating tendency” of our modern technological lives, represented in the manner in which technology makes promises and subsequently erodes the quality of life in attempting to make good on its promises. Technology, Borgmann says, promises to place nature and culture under our control and it does so by means of devices that make goods and services effortlessly available to us. The characteristic feature of devices is that they perform their tasks immediately, and without making much in the way of demand upon us in return. Emblematic devices for Borgmann include television sets, automobiles and so forth. Facebook and other social media tools seem to fit the bill (though there is some squabbling it seems in the secondary literature about what counts as a device and what does not). Expressed in Borgmannesque terms the Facebook is a device that makes our friends available to us whenever we choose. Space and time all but disappear. Thus I can conjure up my pals over my morning tea or by means of a Facebook app on phone as I commute to work. It’s easy, ubiquitous, effortless.

So, why might any of this be a problem?

The problem is that the device, in general, supplants a richer engagement with things. To use one of Borgmann’s own examples when a wood-burning stove is replaced by heat supplied by a coal-fired central plant and piped into our homes a rich involvement with the world of the thing is lost. The stove is more than a mere appliance – it provides a focus for the home, a hearth. To select and chop the wood and to learn the knack of lighting and maintaining the stove requires a social engagement than one does not get by flipping a switch. The family gathers around it. In terms of this model, Facebook in its capacity to make friends appear by glancing at our screens, and in its reduction of social civilities to the mere deploying of “like” buttons and so on, unburdens us of many of the responsibilities of friendship. It is fair to say that, over the years, I have traveled less to Ireland to see my parents and siblings than I might have, because they remain available to me on Facebook and Skype. But instant availability comes at the cost of a flattening. A poke from friend or family on Facebook has never been, I suspect, as gratifying as an embrace in the flesh. Gone also is the satisfaction of arriving at the journey’s end – the door opening, the smell of rashers of bacon on the pan in the kitchen within, being prepared for the prodigal son’s return.

Now most people maintain a mixed strategy: inter-mingling the virtual and the physical aspects of their friendships. I have coined the term “phriendship” to refer to those intimate relationships that call primarily for real-world physical encounters. Clearly we need to maintain both phriendships and friendships. However, perhaps even the best of phriendships becomes a little deracinated by our virtual commitments. When one finally get together, the process of catching is now a little diluted. That trimmed beard no longer a surprise, nor are the graying temples, the chronicles of births, deaths. Entertainments and misfortunes have already been shared. There is simply less work to do – when we next meet up the routine tasks of friendship have been attended to in tiny byte-sized pieces.

The suggestion that technology overwhelms by successfully unburdening us seems on the face of it ungrateful. After all crafting a critique of technology requires the time and leisure for reflection that one might argue is itself the very fruit of the technology that we decry. This whole enterprise appears nostalgic, does it not? A hankering after tougher times when a man knew how to hew wood. But it is not the case that Borgmann would send us all to the lumberyard or back to a smoky kitchen. He calls our attention to that which devices replace – what he calls focal practices. By focal practices he refers to activities surrounding those events in our lives where the means and end are more in concert. Preparing a festive meal for the family, a walk in the wilds, even trout fishing…where one does not especially value being disburdened of the associated tasks. The cultivation of focal practices is proposed as a means of resisting the device paradigm. It is hard in a paragraph to do justice to the richness of Borgmann’s treatment so I will defer a more detailed treatment.

Even from the perspective of Borgmann’s analysis, Facebook is clearly not a device in the way that a nuclear power plant, or even a toaster oven, for that matter, is. We presumably use Facebook as a means incorporating friends into our daily life and that seems like a splendid thing. Though Facebook may yield to shabby commodification, nonetheless, it does not mean that we shall all become commercial pals. In fact, we can, arguably, experience all of Aristotle's modes of friendship online, nonetheless, friendships of the most virtuous kind are perhaps less successfully achieved there. Facebook though purporting to connect us to friends is nonetheless, like other onanisitic activities, a solitary practice. It is unlikely that it will satisfy us in a way that delivers intimacy in all its potentialities. And the degree to which the enthrallment of our online lives precludes such small felicities as running into old friends on a trip back home is the degree to which it should make us virtually suspicious.


1.Borgmann, A., Technology and the character of contemporary life: A philosophical inquiry. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1984.

2.Dunbar, R., How many “Friends” Can you really have? Ieee Spectrum 2011, 48, 81-U95.

3.Dunbar, R.I.M., Neocortex size as a constraint on group-size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution 1992, 22, 469-493.

4.Dunbar, R.I.M., Coevolution of neocortical size, group-size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1993, 16, 681-694.

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