Eureka Live – Facebook: bad for friendship?

15 March 2011

 I dont wanna be ure friend on Facebook in 3 D stereo
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I dont wanna be ure friend on Facebook in 3 D stereo by antjeverena, on Flickr

The latest Eureka Live event held at the Wellcome Collection, ‘Facebook: bad for friendship?’, was hosted by Murad Ahmed, Tech Reporter for the Times, and featured lively debate on the nature of friendship and the role technology has to play in defining how we interact with each other as we hurtle further into the 21st century.

The panel discussing these matters were Dr Will Reader from Sheffield Hallam University, currently investigating technologically mediated social interaction, Dr Ben Seymour, Honorary Research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and Mark Stevenson, author, comedian and futurologist.

The discussion began with a straw poll of the room. “Who here’s on Facebook?” 99% of hands went up. “Who’s ever defriended anyone?” Again, lots of hands. “Who’s told the person you defriended they were about to get the chop?” Only my hand went up, but that’s another story for another blog post.

The first topic of discussion was ‘Can you have too many friends?’. At this point the majority of the talk focused on what, in the Facebook era, the word ‘friend’ really means. The panel suggested that this word has really been commandeered by Facebook and that the site has twisted it somewhat. In reality it’s more ‘acquaintancebook’ than ‘friendbook’.

There was much talk of the ‘Dunbar number’, which proposes that we can maintain a social network of up to about 150 people. I’m sure you know people who’ve a much higher number of Facebook friends than that (I’ve an unremarkable 165). The panel all agreed that spreading yourself ‘too thin’ means you can’t invest as much time into each friendship and makes forging new or meaningful relationships with people very difficult. It reminded me of a line from one of my favourite songs: “new old friends take time”.

A growing trend discussed is one where people are purging their Facebook accounts leaving only close friends and family, but using Twitter for the broadcasting of their thoughts. Stevenson explained more than once that he uses a pub for maintaining his friendships, not a website.

One of the great facts about social networking that we learnt at the event is about the global prevalence of Twitter. According to its CEO Dick Costolo, Twitter is popular almost everywhere, with the exception of Germany. Apparently the frequent use of compound words makes sticking to the 140 character limit very difficult! A classic, if somewhat extreme, example a German friend gave me is Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän (Captain of a steam boat on the river Danube).

Talk moved onto discussing whether Facebook is the future of communication. Here the panel disagreed. Ahmed suggested that when floated Facebook could be the world’s first trillion dollar company. Seymour disagreed, suggesting that he can easily envisage a future where the site no longer exists. Once something becomes mainstream, young creative types tend to jump ship and develop something new. Myspace says hello. He expanded this by explaining that trying to predict what will be popular online in the future is really difficult. Google have certainly tried, but have you ever used Google Wave? How about Google Buzz?

In my opinion the most insightful comment of the evening came from Mark Stevenson. He explained how we’re all moving from a world of hierarchy into a world of networking. Regardless of whether we’re using Facebook, Twitter, or some other as yet undreamt of platform, future innovators will lead not by being promoted but by being connected. I think many of us can think of examples, no matter how small, of how we’ve used the ‘hivemind’ to discover, or offer, information quickly, be it restaurant recommendations, or new albums to listen to.

The concluding question of the evening was ‘Is Facebook good for friendship?’. The panel agreed that it is an excellent tool for maintaining contacts, but it can never replace the process of developing ‘real friendships’, something that requires sustained one-to-one interaction be it phone, email, or face-to-face talking.

Benjamin Thompson is a writer at the Wellcome Trust.