FRIENDS IN *SIGH* PLACES
What does the future of friendship l ook l i ke i n the post- truth, alternative fact, cat-fishing, trolling, ghosting, cyber- bullying online world? I t’s complicated, writes
At Facebook’s F8 conference this year, Mark Zuckerberg boasted that with the new Facebook AR camera you could add a second coffee mug to your picture “so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone”. Hang on. I thought the Internet, and Facebook in particular, was about connecting people. In fact, in the history of time, have people ever had so many friends? Or, more accurately, ‘friends’.
Such contradictions are inherent in the evolving human relationship to 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 expectations and assumptions, it does not reflect the many different degrees of friendship and related behaviours that digital technology and social media has introduced into our lives. And the idea that we are now friends with brands stretches the paradigm even further, as our favourite brands begin to establish reciprocal relationships and connect on a deeper emotional level.
But digital communication is inherently faceless. How do people, and brands for that matter, navigate a world where the ability to read facial expression and body language has been removed? We can intuit emotion only if we truly know the person we are digitally communicating with. So where does that leave digital friendships and how do we replicate the ability to read genuine human emotion?
REAL AND I MAGINED
While social media and other technologies give us greater options for finding, connecting and maintaining friendships, how easy is it to nurture fundamental and emotional elements of friendship such as honesty, trust, empathy, intimacy, and vulnerability in an online world that breeds behaviour quite the opposite of this.
“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
Such conflicts and 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. VR opens up a whole world of possibilities for sharing experiences yet is essentially a solitary experience.
And brands face an interesting paradox around their ability to trigger a positive emotional connection in a place where they have not been invited to play. Brand connections play a role in our shared understanding of the brand but this only happens when we trigger an emotional response. Neuroscience shows us that when we watch someone undertaking a dangerous activity our brain replicates the feelings of fear despite the fact that we ourselves are not in danger. Likewise, if brands can overcome the barriers and replicate positive emotions in a digital world they will significantly increase their ability to connect and influence – or, in other words, making friends with their customer base.
Savvy and sceptical about navigating online relationships, millennials are nevertheless troubled by real life consequences and visceral emotional responses.
It’s an accepted fact that we all promote certain sides of ourselves on social media. While millennials may have hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ online, they are conscientious about who their real friends are. The crowded online friendship space is just one element in the overwhelming busyness that people feel in their lives – their true friends are the ones they make time for.
Even so, many fear that their IRL social skills are being affected by the amount of time they spend communicating digitally.
“I don’t even like talking to people on the phone anymore. Being able to communicate has become easier but it doesn’t