Navigating your digital friendships

Navigating digital friendship

Friendship is a concept that is embedded in our language. Having friends enriches our lives and protects us from loneliness. But has the digital age killed the meaning of friendship?

The term “friend” can be traced back to the Old English “freond,” denoting an individual attached to another by feelings of personal regard and preference. Its origins come from Proto-Germanic roots, “frijōjands” meaning “lover” or “friend,” and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root “pri” meaning “to love.”

Old English notions of friendship

In Old English, the term “friend” carried a weighty significance, representing a meaningful connection based on personal emotions. It had many variations denoting the importance attached to the number of friends one had:

  • “freonsped” conveyed the idea of an abundance of friends (a “freondspedig” was a person rich in friends)
  • “freondleast” highlighted a lack of friends (equivalent to “friendless”)

To describe someone as “friendless” is usually a damning indictment suggesting that that person has no likeable characteristics rather than a sympathetic assessment of their loneliness.

Friends in the Facebook era

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the rise of social media (SM). Our notion of friends has been changed by SM platforms, particularly Facebook (FB). Whereas in Anglo-Saxon times a friendship was something built on a relationship and a shared experience; in the digital age you can get them by just pushing a button. I have quite a few friends on FB but it I don’t see them very often (many I haven’t seen since school).

Friending and unfriending

“Friend” has been used as a verb since the 1200s. When people make friends with someone they befriend them. The building of this new emotional bond was described as becoming friends. However, this was abbreviated (as occurs to most digital things). And in 2005, “friending” entered our vocabulary as a verb. It signifies the act of connecting with others on social media.

Friendships can be tumultuous. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary describes friendship as …

A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather but only one in foul”

So, as easy as it is to become friends with someone in the modern world, it is equally easy to end the digital friendship (with a push of a button). To “unfriend” someone in the FB sense, was first used in November 2007. However, unfriended goes back to at least Shakespeare, but in a slightly different sense as to be “friendless.” Used as a noun an “unfriend” is an enemy (this use into the 19th century).

So who are our friends?

So does the digital ease of making friends, with its quick clicks and instant associations, risk creating a sense of connection that lacks any genuine emotional bond?

A few years I came across a suggested test to identify who your true friends are—they are simply the people who would lend you money when you are in trouble. Although I like the concept I think it is not quite how I view the friendship transaction.