Friendship Isn't Dead. The Strengthening of Loose Ties

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by: David Armano

This is my first attempt at writing anything since attending the SXSW conference for the first time—it was quite an experience, from the panels to the parties to the conversations in the hallways, cafes and sidewalks. I spoke on a couple of panels but there was something really special about the "Friendship is Dead" salon that friend Russ Unger and myself "moderated". I use the term loosely because it felt like a casual conversation more than anything else. Some even joked around about it feeling like "therapy".

Video by @matto
We started off the panel with the premise of friendship in the basic sense and quickly moved into social media territory. It became clear that few people in the room felt that there is a need for social applications to offer better controls around how we can classify "friends"—from those who we may have met online, to the ones we work with to the ones we’ve known from childhood that may ore may not be close with anymore. The conversation quickly moved into a very organic space where many of us felt the need to express opinions on the subject, and were clearly wrestling with the notion of managing our relationships as they soar into higher and higher numbers. If you reference "Dunbar’s Number" (below), there is an assertion that once we exceed the number of relationships past "150", that our relationships become less meaningful and more difficult to manage.

There was no doubt that many in the room that day feel this as our social graphs expand upwardly and outwardly putting all of our family, friends, and contacts together in ways we may not have anticipated. The intangible notion of "ambient intimacy" coined by Leisa Reichelt could be felt in that very room. In fact it was the one thing that I couldn’t shake as I walked around the room looking at scores of familiar faces who I felt I’d known for years. Some of us had met before, many of us hadn’t and yet as I looked around, it was like a living slice of my social graph layed out in front of me. People from all walks of life—design, marketing, social media, journalism, the list goes on.

So are these people my friends? This was the question that kept popping into my head as we moderated the discussion. And that leads to more questions including "what are friends?". The conversation continued into areas of privacy, how much we share, the need for us to connect with others who are "like us" and the tendancy for some of us to project ourselves differently to different online communities. This is the kind of topic which is philosophical in nature—there really are no definitive answers, only thoughts that might be able to help us navigate through a very interesting time. Then at the end, something was said from Jeff Dachis, the former founder of Razorfish and it stuck with me ever since.

"I know who my friends are. What’s confusing us is how the Web is strengthening our loose ties"

This struck a chord with me. Most of us intuitively know who our friends are. They’re the ones we feel comfortable around, they accept us for who we are yet challenge us to be better, they help us get through difficult times and stick around when others have left. These are our friends. But, with networks we have access to more individuals then ever before in history. We know when they are sick, when they are traveling and even when they’ve lost a loved one. Some of us stay in constant communication with people who would have normally been considered "loose ties", people we’ve met at an event, a party, a former co-worker, or college friend. These ties can become strengthened and feel like something more than they used to be. And of course, they can turn into friendships at any given time. So while most of us know "who our friends are", it’s likely that we’re also managing our relationships in ways that allow us to scale. The loose ties become strengthened, while we may rely on social networks even less for our "inner circle" of friends.

So friendship isn’t dead, thought it might be pushing us to our limits as we open ourselves to more connections and relationships—in some cases maybe more than we can handle.

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