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

Idealog - - FUTURE FRIENDSHIPS - An­to­nia Mann.

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.

BLOCK WORK

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

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