We’ve been conducting our friendships online for a few years now. The internet has become as much a part of contemporary amity as sharing a pint in the pub. But what’s been learnt about the way the new medium shapes friendship, the perils it presents, as well as the promise? Here’s three reflections, from three great philosophers of friendship, that have a bearing on internet friendship today.
First, there’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that friends look straight ahead. What he meant was that friendship is a future-orientated relationship. If friends spend their time musing on the past, as is perhaps a tendency when college and school friends reconnect online, they might enjoy the nostalgia but they are engaged in a relationship that depends on yesterday, and doesn’t look forward to tomorrow. The trouble is that yesterday is gone. The risk is that an old friendship revived will quickly peter out too.
Second, there’s Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought that people often conduct their friendships from behind high walls and fortified towers. What he meant was that close friendship requires you to open up with your intimates, and for them to open up to you. That’s difficult, not just because it makes you vulnerable, but because it is hard to know yourself well enough to do it. The internet equivalent of the high walls is the computer screen. It allows you to control what you show of yourself, and hence perhaps stymies real friendship too. To meet face to face is a risk since you allow yourself to be read. The reward, though, could be a soulmate.
Third, there’s Oscar Wilde’s remark about how true friends stab you in the front. He didn’t say this to be down on friendship. Quite the opposite. For the really good friend is the person who can say the really difficult thing to you, and thereby change your life, or at least shatter a delusion or two. But you need to be able to see the compassion in their eyes to accept it, which is why the stab must come from the front: we communicate with our eyes, mouths, posture and presence as well as with words. On the internet, there are plenty of people who would stab you in the back, as they hide behind their anonymity and physical distance from you. But that is not much use to you, or them.
Mark Vernon is a member of The School Of Life faculty. His new book, The Meaning of Friendship is published by Palgrave Macmillan.