How is the concept of friendship changing in the age of social media?

Could two people who do not follow each other on social networks be friends? Or, on the contrary, could those who have only interacted on Instagram or TikTok be considered friends?

Two friends doing a move together.AntonioGuillem (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What determines the value of a friendship? To make this determination, one could consider an array of criteria: is a friend simply an acquaintance, someone you occasionally make plans with? Or is it someone willing to listen to your sorrows, someone who lends a helping hand in a difficult moment, who is there for you through thick and thin? Or is a friend simply that person with whom you maintain a lasting relationship over time, with whom you share key elements of your past, such as the neighborhood you grew up in or the school you attended?

The ever-growing presence of social media has turned much of the fabric of interpersonal relationships into the virtual plane, introducing new possibilities to the concept of friendship, altering its more traditional meaning. Could two people who do not follow each other on social networks be friends? Or, on the contrary, could those who have only interacted on Instagram or TikTok be considered friends?

The writer Sara Torres, author of Lo que hay (Reservoir Books, 2022), spoke about the idea of friendship on the Ciberlocutorio podcast, hosted by Andrea Gumes and Anna Pacheco: “Do we consider friends the people to whom we attribute symbolic capital? Do we call people friends because we want to be part of their world?” Following these reflections, the subsequent episode of the program, entitled Managers de la amistad [Managers of friendship], also addressed the breakdown of friendships and the subsequent mourning that follows, in a context in which financial terms such as manage, invest, readjust or compensate are now being used to refer to personal relationships.

The question of what a good friend is or what a good friend should do has recently taken over social media. In an article published in Dazed titled Are we all becoming terrible friends?, Hannah Mackenzie reflects on the current meaning of friendship, drawing on criticisms voiced on TikTok of what has come to be colloquially referred to in internet parlance as trauma dumping, which could be interpreted unloading traumatic experiences on others without warning or invitation. In the same way, other practices such as asking for help to carry out a move were questioned, along with any other practices that could be considered as asking for too much from friends, such as asking for a ride to the airport when you could just get an Uber.

On social media, there is a dilemma surrounding what can be demanded of a friend or to what extent it is healthy to help friends, and which leads to other questions, such as how to set limits in friendships — to learn to say no, or even, if necessary, to sever a relationhip with a close friend. On the thorny question of how to end a friendship and what reasons lead to this scenario, the journalist Sophie K. Rosa, author of Radical Intimacy and one of the sources cited in the piece, points to the impact of modern capitalism on the rhythms of life, starting with the proportion of hours dedicated to working.

Marta Carmona, psychiatrist and member of the Madrid Association of Mental Health, elaborates on this in a conversation with EL PAÍS. Carmona is co-author of Malestamos (Capitán Swing, 2022), an essay that analyzes the influence modern capitalism has on the concern for mental health in the face of the growing trend in social networks that advises setting limits in friendships. “The psychotherapeutic experience is an individual, non-transferable experience that happens within the framework of therapy, but from which we often have the illusion of being able to draw, as if they were universal truths, phrases that have been tremendously restorative in consultation. When we do this, it immediately becomes a cork,” Carmona says. “There is a tendency to try to extrapolate general guidelines, writing decalogues or a certain prescription of how relationships should be. This ignores the complexity of human relationships, as in the case of friendship. One of these strategies that is not usually contextualized and that lands badly on the variety that clinical experience provides is that it is necessary and healthy to set limits. And this is not a lie, but it cannot be put as a general rule when you do not discriminate who you are dealing with or what type of interaction it is.”

According to the psychiatrist, behind the pretense of avoiding adulterating friendships with requests that could be remedied by contracting a service (such as calling an Uber), there is, paradoxically, the mediation of a very mercantilist logic. “The idea of approaching a friendship as a matter to be managed is further proof that this mercantilist logic, which leads to the use of financial concepts to understand what is relational, is tremendously impoverishing,” she says.

male couple
A young man gives his friend a ride in a car.Lupe Rodriguez (Getty Images/Westend61)

Breaking up with friends can be even more complicated than ending a relationship. Ghosting (breaking up with someone without telling them, simply by not replying to their messages) is already recognized and noted as a malpractice in the field of sex-affective responsibility. However, when it comes to friendships it remains a common practice. The psychiatrist and writer points to the lack of cultural references that address the end of friendship in comparison with the copious literature that exists on romantic relationships. “Except for relationships that are contextualized in the phase of adolescence, in which these bonds are essential for the configuration of the subject’s identity, there is little representation [in literature] of mourning a friendship,” she explains. “We lack cultural tools to [navigate] mourning for a friendship that is broken, and this is a complex and necessary phenomenon, which is part of who we are. This idea that everything has to be managed is impoverishing the subject and also our relationships. Not only because we choose the financial logic [to make sense of it], but because it is the only [option] we have [to deal with it].”

The underlying question behind these dilemmas — which are not new, but which have become more relevant during the digital age — is, in short, what we consider friendship. “We need people to regain the ability to act on their lives, to be able to define who they are, to be able to define how they relate [to one another],” proposes the author of Malestamos. Beyond the terminology of market analysis that applies concepts such as risk, investment or profit to affection, the question of what friendship is and what gestures it should imply remains in the air as a reflection that can be exciting, and both personal and collective. “It begs the question: what [kind of] friendships do we want?,” says Carmona, who adds that the traditional notion of what a friend is no longer applies in the age of social media.

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