We Must Reclaim Friendship From the Bonds of Social Media

I think many of us have so fused with our phones that we have forgotten the magic of real, embodied friendship.

Good friends are one of life’s good gifts. Friday game nights with takeout Thai food and a lot of laughter. Comforting conversations over a cup of coffee following the tragic loss of a loved one. Long walks and talks in the park about the deepest depths of life itself. These moments are unmatched. True friendship is often much stronger than the blood bonds that bring together families. True friendship requires selfless love, a willingness to endure conflict, and the ability to say what needs to be said. Real, sacrificial friendship is terribly inefficient and inconvenient. In a cultural moment in which efficiency and convenience is everything, friendship seems like a distraction. It requires a sort of endurance and long suffering that runs against the ever-increasing speed of our daily lives. Friendship requires us to care for the good of others at least as much, and hopefully more, than we care for our own good.

The Cheapening of Friendship

The social internet has cheapened friendship. Myspace allowed users to create “top friends” who were featured prominently on user profiles. Many Millennials remember the “top friends” feature on Myspace serving as a battleground for adolescent social disputes. Friends, and particularly the ranking of them, became pawns in a vicious game of reputational chess. You could threaten a friend with the horrifying idea that you would remove them from your “top eight,” in an effort to scare them into submission and loyalty. Facebook commoditized friends further through its perpetuation of much of the Myspace system, minus the “top friends” feature. Every connection on Facebook is considered a “friend,” watering down the concept of what a “friend” is in our mind without us even noticing it. Today, we use the word “acquaintance” simply as a synonym to “friend,” because the concept of a “friend” has been robbed of some of its weight.

A healthy relationship with the social internet requires us to reclaim the real, deep understanding of friendship that has been lost. It is important to have real friends with whom we spend time in person. We have to resist the temptation toward our screens becoming mediators of every relationship we have. Our screens mute the full range of friendship. A friend offering text-message condolences following the death of a family member cannot compare to their embodied presence and comforting embrace. A “Happy Birthday” message on Facebook just isn’t the same as receiving a hand-written card from a distant friend. I think many of us have so fused with our phones that we have forgotten the magic of real, embodied friendship. What value are these friendships? 

Friendships remind us of what is real.

One of the more damaging effects of living life fused with screens and phones that we haven’t explored in depth is the sort of “detachment” from reality that happens when every part of life is filtered through a screen and a set of algorithms. The most prolific form of this phenomenon is the rise in popularity of false news. But our collective detachment from reality goes well beyond believing false narratives about what is happening in the world. That is a problem in and of itself, to be sure, but I think our detachment from real, embodied friendships is worse. When we do not connect with others in our offline lives, we can lose our grasp on what real friendship looks like, and what it looks like to live life alongside real friends, as opposed to the “friends” we collect on our preferred social media platforms.

This has never been made more clear than it has been during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Both my wife, Susie, and I have felt the strain of maintaining our friendships during this time. We lead a community group at our church, and the disconnection we have felt with members of our community group through periods of this pandemic has been excruciating. It doesn’t help that we welcomed our daughter, Maggie, at the first height of the pandemic in April 2020. It isn’t just our family feeling the detrimental effects of isolation and distance from friends. Complaints of anxiety, depression, and “Zoom fatigue,” have been widespread. Many people are making life-altering decisions, like changing careers, moving cities, or abandoning families because of how this dizzying time of relative isolation and uncertainty is making them feel.

Our online lives are real, but not fully real. So much of our online lives are curated, polished, lacking the raw, rough edges of offline life. When we build friendships that primarily exist offline, unhindered by filters of perfection or algorithmic manipulation, we are reminded of that which is fully real. Offline friendships are rooted in the deepest matters of life, while online friendships most often revolve around entertaining content, juicy controversy, and rampant conflict.

Friendships give us an opportunity to sacrificially love others.

The key to any long lasting friendship is a desire to do what is best for our friends at all times, even when doing what is best for our friends may come at great cost to ourselves. This is sacrificial love—from a Christian perspective, this is demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ. Sacrificial love is the backbone of deep friendship. This doesn’t mean we need to be constantly seeking out ways to put ourselves in harm’s way in order to protect our friends—few of us will have the opportunity to “take a bullet,” whether literally or metaphorically, for our friends. Sacrificial love is usually much more mundane than that. Sacrificial love as the backbone of our friendships is most often seen in the simple acts of service we do for friends amidst the rhythms and routines of daily life. Sacrificial love looks like babysitting a friend’s kids for free while your friend and her husband go out for a much needed date night. It looks like dropping off some Starbucks for a friend who has had a hard day at work. It looks like dropping everything you’re doing to go for a walk with a friend who just needs to be with someone who loves them.

The sacrificial love upon which real friendships are built is incredibly difficult to enact on the internet. This is why incarnational, real life friendships are so superior to online friendships. A friend you meet in a Facebook book club can make good conversation, but he can’t come help you change a tire. A friend you make in the Instagram comment section of your favorite influencer can give you the best makeup tips, but she can’t be by your side when you endure real tragedy and your tears are making your mascara messy. All of this is to say: making online friendships isn’t wrong, but there is a sort of “ceiling” to them that cannot be crossed without regular offline interaction. Embodied friendship can reach a level of intimacy that virtual friendship simply cannot, and the primary reason for that is that the sacrificial love that undergirds friendship is harder to express virtually than in it in person amidst the rhythms and routines of daily life.

Friendships encourage us in the darkest seasons of life. 

At no time is a friend more necessary than when life is difficult. An important part of friendship is being the friend that comes alongside the friend enduring a difficult season of life—this is an important manifestation of the sacrificial love we just examined. Equally important is being on the receiving end of the sacrificial love of a dear friend when you are the one enduring the dark season of life.

I experience this most clearly through the community group I lead in my church. Every Tuesday night, a small group of friends comes over to our house. We share a meal, we talk about what is going on in our lives, we study the Bible, and we pray for one another. The people in this group truly love one another. As we have met over the years, we have learned more about each other and we have endured dark seasons with one another. We have hugged each other. We have sat and cried together. We have visited members of our group who move to far away places. This group of friends embodies what it means to encourage one another in the hard times. We can’t find this sort of relationship online.

I have a couple thousand Twitter followers. I have hundreds of friends on Facebook. None of those people have endured dark seasons of life with me like the people in my community group have. In past dark seasons, social media has been a helpful tool to ask for prayer or other means of support, but often the people who offer prayer or support through social media don’t really know the lives and circumstances of the people for whom they are offering prayer or support. That doesn’t make it wrong or bad—it’s never wrong to pray for or support strangers—but tweets or Facebook messages of support during a dark season of life aren’t quite the same as a friend’s tearful embrace or quiet presence.