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The future of friendship. It’s complicated.

children playing in fountain

With the new Facebook AR camera you can add a second coffee mug to your picture “so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone”.

In a nutshell

  1. The meaning and dynamics of friendship have changed with technology and social media, and the term “friend” itself has become inadequate.
  2. Instant messages, texts and minimally effortful ‘likes’ are diminishing peoples’ capacity for empathy and ability to communicate in real life situations.
  3. If we look towards the future we see robots, AI and machine learning. What will honesty, trust, empathy, and intimacy look like in such a world?

Hang on. I thought social media was about connecting people. In fact, in the history of time, have people ever had so many friends? ‘Friends’, rather.

Such contradictions are inherent in our evolving relationship with technology. With technology and social media an inseparable part of how we navigate relationships today, the meaning and dynamics of friendship have changed, and the term “friend” itself has become inadequate. Heavy with certain expectations and assumptions, it does not reflect the many different degrees of friendship that digital technology and social media have introduced into our lives.

While technology gives us greater options for finding and maintaining friendships, it is becoming more difficult to nurture fundamental elements such as honesty, trust, empathy, and intimacy in a post-truth, alternative facts, cat-fishing, trolling, ghosting, cyber-bullying online world that breeds behaviour quite the opposite of this.

Such paradoxes are well-known: being more connected helps sufferers of anxiety and depression yet also causes depression; we have more friends than ever yet feel more isolated. Our research on millennials shows they are very aware of the contradictions. Savvy and sceptical about navigating online relationships, millennials are nevertheless troubled by real life consequences.

Millennials often have hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ online, a true reflection of the overwhelming busy-ness that people feel in their real lives. But their real friends are the ones they make time for.

“Trying to find the person in between the life they’ve created virtually and the real life. I think that’s the biggest problem of our generation now.”
– TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

And while millennials are adept navigators of the digital friend-scape, many fear that their IRL social skills are being affected by the amount of time they spend communicating digitally.

Digital communication allows people to avoid uncomfortable moments. When those moments do happen in real life, rather than being able to deal with awkwardness as a normal part of everyday communication, we hide.

Sherry Turkle, social psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, calls this the “Goldilocks Effect”. You can have your friendships at the temperature you want them – not too close, not too distant, just right. And when you want to end things, it can usually happen without penalty.

“I don’t even like talking to people on the phone anymore. Being able to communicate has become easier but it doesn’t mean we have become better communicators.”
– TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle argues that instant messages, texts and minimally effortful ‘likes’ are diminishing peoples’ capacity for empathy and ability to communicate in real life situations. One of the more prevalent behavioural examples of this is the rather deplorable practice of ‘ghosting’, the one-sided ending of a relationship by suddenly stopping all communication with no explanation.

If you do not participate in the online dating scene, however, don’t feel smug that you have escaped such experiences. Our fading capacity for human interaction is happening in many areas of life and affecting all sorts of relationships. People can now shut themselves off, entertain themselves, order and organise their food, groceries, cleaner, driver all through an app, without having to talk to anyone. Not great for your small talk skills. Considering that collaboration is one of the most important skills for how we work today, without empathy and compassion that collaboration is going to unravel pretty quickly.

“It widens your circle 10x. You get invited to events easily, there’s just no limit to how far you can go socially with Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. However, I do feel I am more comfortable in the social media wold, talking to people there rather than meeting up.”
– TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

But let’s say we do decide to leave the house and make some IRL friends. Yes, there are apps for that. Hey!Vina is a friend-finding app for women who are travelling or have just moved to a new city, and Huggle is an app that introduces people based on common location and interests, rather than appearances.

Despite warnings of our diminishing social skills, you actually do need some interpersonal skills to move from online chat to meeting to actual friendship. According to eHarmony, 20% of those in current, committed relationships began online and 7% of marriages in 2015 were between couples that met on a dating website. Clearly people are managing to communicate fairly well, whichever their preferred combination of channels.

But apps are just the latest tool to fulfil our basic human need for companionship. The platforms we use to fulfil this need will evolve as technology does, but the underlying desire won’t. If we look towards the future we see robots, AI and machine learning. Which begs the question: what will honesty, trust, empathy, and intimacy look like in such a world?

Currently every major technology player is developing a voice-activated AI assistant or operating system. According to a Guardian article, people who use Amazon’s Alexa frequently report that they quickly and easily start thinking of the device as a proxy member of the family: “Even when I’ve tried to call her ‘it’, it feels wrong. She has a name. She’s Alexa.”

While incredible effort is going into making robots and AI more human, the fact that robots have traditionally been presented as non-emotional, without judgement or reaction, can work in their favour. It has been found that in certain situations people open up more to robots than humans, particularly when the context may be taboo or illegal.

Robots are probably the ultimate friends – you can tell them everything, they keep secrets, they will make your life easier, you won’t have to deal with their neuroses and emotional dramas, they won’t judge you, and they will never, ever ghost you. But unless we completely lose our capacity for empathy and compassion, we are likely to still feel guilty if we try to terminate these friendships. This human experience is examined in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back where a woman orders an AI clone of her deceased boyfriend but soon realises it will never replace him. Though she tries, she is ultimately unable to get rid of the clone, and keeps him in the attic for years to come.

Should the reality of our relationships end up following the imaginings of popular culture, perhaps AI achieving sentience will force humans to regain the humanity that seems to be slipping through our fingers.

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Antonia Mann
Cultural strategist at TRA

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