When the word friend means anything, it means nothing

[Note: I just returned to work from a family vacation. I was in Maine, where it was nice and cool and I was fortuante enough to find some time to read and think and notice the shapes of rocks. In Maine, there are lots of rocks, and they come in all shapes. When I’m off-line (from work), I tend to jot notes (in, yes, that hipster notepad, a Moleskine). At different times, over a ten day period, I jotted down several thoughts about friendship. The following strings together those notes. After this post, this blog will return to regular programming.]

I wish I were a better friend. Unfortunately, I have the tendency to drift out of touch with people — even close friends, even family. I know what real friendship is all about. I’ve been through times when mere acquaintances cleared out. And I’ve been through events where real-friends rally’d ’round. Likewise, I’ve rallied around friends in need and, more times than I’d like to admit, I’ve tuned-out when friends needed me to be listening.

I should have been more sensitive — less tone-deaf to the language of friendship. More like a real friend, whatever that means. And therein lies one of the problems with the “friend” thing. I’m more and more confused by what the word means — by what the concept means.

Back before there was a thing called the Internet, a verb existed to describe the act of becoming a friend with someone. That antique verb was “befriend.” On the web, the whole “be-” thing has been dropped and the noun “friend” has became a verb also. I guess we should be thankful it didn’t get “verbized” into the term “friendize.” Nonetheless, along the journey to “friending” instead of “befriending,” we’ve seemed to drop the “friend” part of the word, as well. Somewhere along that journey, the word friend started meaning anything, and thus, nothing.

By selecting the word “friend” to mean the act of creating a mutual hyperlink between two individuals’ web presence, we’ve totally debased a word that in the past meant so much that philosophers, theologians, linguists and poets spent centuries contemplating, categorizing and honoring it. Online, the word “friend” now means the act of clicking yes when someone asks if you want to exchange an acknowledgement of some shared connection, even if the connection is that you once happened to be sitting in the same theater during a Kevin Bacon movie.

As I was leaving for my vacation, the word “friend” was being flung around in a blogger dust-up that I don’t want to re-hash once more. However, it led me — far from conflict and in a much mellower environment — to ask the 16- and 20- year-olds in my family what it means to have a “friend,” as in the way they have 700+ friends on Facebook. As I anticipated, they are well on their way to sorting out the nuanced nature of Facebook-friend-relativity, as in knowing the difference in a friend and a friend, if you know what I mean. As we were on vacation, I acted like I knew what they meant.

I asked if they would “friend” anyone who requested them to. They responded, emphatically and with indignation, “no.” Right answer. However, how can you possibly have 700+ friends? I asked. Elementary, middle and high schools, summer camps, teams, music, church, on-and-on, the social-graph grows and soon, a 16 year old actually can account for having a network of 700+ individuals with whom he’s been connected in real-life (at least, shared some mutual space temporarily) and has commemorated that shared-experience via a “yes” click that results in a hyperlink. (Apparently, others don’t display even that minimal level of discression. According to at least one small-scale experiment, some Facebook users will accept friend requests from anyone.)

During my days away from work and — in a work-way — the web, I did a little reading on the topic of friendship. I quickly discovered that debating the nature of friendship is probably one of the top ten most popular debates of all time, as it is a facet of Number 1 on that chart: What is love? (I’m just guessing on the ranking, I didn’t run across an actual listing of the Billboard top debates of all time.) For more serious explorations of the topic of friendship, I recommend (in addition to listening to James Taylor) this entry on the nature of friendship by Bennett Helm in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. and the paper, Friendship: theory and experience, in the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education, by Michele E. Doyle and Mark K. Smith. Both are comprehensive and enlightening — and stretch back over a few thousand years to Aristotle and Ciscero. They are also comprehensible — something I discovered missing in other scholarly writing on the topic.

A few thousand years ago, Aristotle distinguished three kinds of friendships: friendships of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue. Mutual concern for one-another is a part of each kind of friendship. Scholars have observed that the three kinds of friendship seem to involve a concern for your friend for his sake and not for your own. According to different interpretations by scholars, Aristotle indicated that “friends should be moved by what happens to their friends to feel the appropriate emotions: joy in their friends’ successes, frustration and disappointment in their friends’ failures (as opposed to disappointment in the friends themselves), etc. Moreover, in part as an expression of their caring for each other, friends must normally be disposed to promote the other’s good for her sake and not out of any ulterior motive,” writes Helms.

Therein lies the problem in utilizing the term “friend” in a business or journalistic context. Reporters can cover an industry, but they can’t cover their “friends” — too much of “covering” requires dispassion and detachment from certain types of emotional engagement one has when friends have successes or failures. I’ve often heard the truism, “don’t do business with your friends,” and have been around the block enough times to “get it.” That doesn’t mean one can’t do business with or “cover” individuals with whom they share mutual respect and confidence — or with individuals they enjoy knowing and spending time with. It’s just difficult — perhaps impossible — to widen the definition of friendship to include doing things — or not doing things — that do not promote the well-being of the friend.

In other words, the “word” friend is probably a lousy choice for describing many of the online and business relationships we hang it on. The word friendship is probably not a good one to describe the relationship individuals who report the news have with those who make the news.

That philosophical argument aside, I feel as if many of the individuals I have come to know through this blog and its seven-year journey are, indeed, friends. When you spend time sharing ideas and pursuing shared intellectual curiousities, you develop relationships that transcend mere acquaintance. You develop shared concerns and passions. You discover individuals with whom you mind-meld on ideas and approaches and snap-judgements on narrow topics. You develop strong bonds that seem to feel just like friendship. And when you discover that such friendships-of-ideas don’t necessarily extend to an Aristotelian notion of “utilitarian” friendship, it can be rather devastating.

I guess this is all why I don’t like to think of this weblog as a publishing platform. And why I don’t like thinking of myself as a journalist when I post to it. And why I rarely use it to write about my job and the things I do professionally. Unlike my kids, I have not developed the nuance necessary to understand the difference between a friend and a friend.

Later: Steve Rubel is blogging about “friend.” For the record, Steve is my friend. The real kind.