Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 22, 2010
I do not think it means what you think it means

After giving you a second to think what movie I was quoting in the title, I would like to talk to you about the word "friend" (and not the word "inconceivable", as you might have thought). I believe that over the last decade or so, the internet has changed what people talk about when they use the word "friend". The definition changed so much, we even had to invent new words that didn't exist before, like "to unfriend". It used to be that most people had very few real friends, but now we all have lots of them on various social networks, in guilds, and other virtual places. Friends have gone from being something precious to being an utility.

I blame social networks like Facebook. Social networks want you to have lots of friends, because their primary function is having everybody advertise various goods and services to their friends. Recommendations from friends are much better advertising than paid-for publicity. But if everybody just has a few precious friends, you never get a big network running in which one guy's recommendation snowballs through thousands of people. So Facebook is trying to "help" you to "find" friends. As I said, I followed one of these helpful links and ended up spamming 288 people from my mail contacts with Facebook friend invites. Ooops.

Leveraging the power of my blog, I have tons of friends on Facebook. But obviously I don't have hundreds of true friends. According to Robin Dunbar my neocortex is actually too small to possibly have more than 150 friends or other stable social relationships, and I need a lot of those 150 slots for work-related social relationships. But then, I gained a lot of "Facebook friends" when I blogged about My Tribe. We fertilize each other's farms, and collect stork feathers and shells on each other's islands, because the game is set up in a way that helping your friends is advantageous to yourself. Having "friends" is how these games work, no matter if the relationship with those friends is totally superficial.

In World of Warcraft I am still in the same guild I signed the guild charter of 5 years ago, on the day the server opened. And there are people in that guild I would call my friends, as much as that is possible in an online social relationship. But I also observed in that guild and in other guilds the phenomenom of guild hopping, people using a guild to advance to a point where switching to a different guild is better for them. Such behavior resembles the utilitarian thinking about Facebook friends a lot more than it resembles true friendship. "You're my friend if you play a healer in our guild raids" isn't much different from "You're my friend if you play My Tribe too".

I do not think "friend" means what this new generation think it means. We might be connected to a lot more people now that nominally are our "friends". But in reality these are often just "people I temporarily share a common interest with", and the word "friend" in its original meaning is far too strong to describe that relationship. Can you think of a better word?
How about a buddy? Someone who you can have a (proverbial) beer with and talk about some public matter, but you wouldn't subject him to the lurid details of your messy divorce or some other personal matter.
I didn't need a second. Princess Bride is oneof my fav movies ever.
Well, LinkedIn, being a social networking site which is intended for professional contacts rather than "friends", calls them "connections". And I reckon that's a pretty good word for the social networking sites which are intended to actually be social. They're people you're connected to - what that connection is exactly could be any one of many things.
In German there is a Term called "Bekannter", which is somebody known to you, but without a special social relationship.

Next on the list would be "Kumpel", which is the from Hirvox mentioned buddy.

"Freund" or friend is a very strong social relationshio in my eyes and i only call very few people to be real friends to me. Those are people i can count on if the shit hits the fan.

The People in facebook i would call "known", but that word is not fancy enough to be used by a company , which makes money with "social" networking.
Online Acquaintances.

Friends are what you have IRL, where you have an actual living, breathing person in front of you. Players are forced to use the term "friend" by virtue of Blizzard and other game developers using these terms to associate our online acquaintances with the people we place in lists inside of the games.

I dont drive an Uncommon car, and I like my steaks Rare. Nor do I use Epic forms of ground transportation or flight.

I do believe that Ninjas might actually exist, though. =)
Acquaintances, as Chris said, would be the most appropriate.

I have one true friend that I have met through wow. The rest come and go.

Gevlon will be proud of you for this post.

I may live in a bubble world or something, but I don't know anyone who uses Facebook to "advertise various goods and services to their friends" (although some use it to recommend the services of others, such as letting others know what he/she is listening to at the moment).

I'm going out on a limb here, but if you're on Facebook as the make-believe person "Tobold" then perhaps you only get make-believe friends too.

I'm not worried about the word's future. A friend is a friend. It's been used in various ways for hundreds of years. Just think of the era that film relates to (and this is not a quote): "Hail friend. What are your intentions out here this fair evening?" That could be a greeting from a guard to a complete stranger skulking about late at night. It would denominate an expression of hopeful apprehension rather than one of any real affinity. Yet we all still know who our friends are.

And yes, guild relationships are weird in that once a person leaves your guild (or you leave yours) you tend to lose contact very fast. But when you think about it, that's not so different from real life. It's only accelerated. If I moved from my home town tomorrow, I'd lose touch with many of the people who I regard as friends, and some even close friends (except, ironically, through Facebook, but I digress). Indeed, I think it's a mark of true friendship that you can be away from each other and out of touch for a long time, maybe years, and reconnect in minutes.
Yeah, acquaintance or connection sounds good to me. It seems to me that English in particular (kinda blowing smoke here as I only speak Setswana and some Spanish) has a real problem with word inflation as its the language of managers and bureaucrats in a lot of places. People tend to overuse really strong words so they lose their power over time. Words like passion, impact, love, etc. I used to think being passionate about something meant you would die without thinking for it--like the Passion of Jesus. Now it's like having a mild preference.

Kind of like the euphemism treadmill, but in reverse.
Connection or link.
21 friends on Facebook, about two-thirds of them 'real' friends. If they aren't someone I think I'm going to communicate with or read every day, then they don't get friended.

As for the guild note, I agree completely. I am in my guild for the people and if the guild ever stopped existing I would probably just go guildless.
Twitter doesn't shy away from the use of the word 'followers' and I believe it is correct use of the word. Basically following your timeline in Twitter doesn't class someone as a friend, just a casual observer with possibly something in common.
German newspaper "Die Welt" (usually not to be recommended) recently had some quite awesome "marketing slogans", or better call em taglines.

One of them was "Wir haben online so viele Freunde, dass wir ein neues Wort für die echten brauchen." which translates to
"We got so many online friends nowadays that we need a new word for the real ones."

Oh so very true.
In English, at least, words are able to support many meanings. Even contrary or apparently unrelated meanings. Context is all.

Most people won't have the slightest problem in knowing precisely what relationship the word "friend" indicates when they use it about another person.

If you really want to see the word operating in its full complexity I suggest you talk to some six-year old girls.
That's an extremely well formulated point, Bhagpuss.

Of course, "friend" pales in comparison to what those same six-year olds do with the word "love"!
Bhagpuss is on to something when he says that the meaning of words can be context sensitive (though I think say that the context is everything is overstating his case. It can't be anything, as he would then have to deny that there were such a thing as meanings to switch as one moved from context to context).

However, when we meaningfully switch contexts, we usually use marker words to indicate that we have switched, and that the meaning of the word should now be taken in this new context. An example would be the compound word "facebook-fried" as opposed to the normal "friend". By placing the modifier "facebook" before the friend, we are signaling that the context has changed. But, I take it that Tobold is concerned with the more standard usage, where there are no context indicators to show that we mean something different when talking about "friends" on facebook from what we mean when we are talking about friends that we have at work (at least possibly). The worry, I take it, is that the common dropping of the context words indicates a change in understanding of what the plain word might mean. That is, the two contexts are (possibly) becoming blurred if people no longer see a need to distinguish these two contexts. At any rate, while I think that the context of an utterance is very important, I do not think that it can resolve the issue at hand.
Erm, embarrassingly, the parenthetical section in my first paragraph should read: (though I think say that the context is everything is overstating his case. It can't be everything, as he would then have to deny that there were such a thing as meanings to switch as one moved from context to context).
In my line of work (as an artist) I really need a lot of friends and I use facebook, myspace and other social network sites. Though I would call most of them contacts or fans. Few of them are actually what I would call friends. I have not even met some of the people on my friend list, many I have met only once. For my professional life networks like these are great, but I can not say it helps me much in the private life (as we do have phones and other methods of keeping in touch with friends).

Savrukk said "In German there is a Term called "Bekannter", which is somebody known to you, but without a special social relationship."

We have the same expression in norwegian. It means something like "Beknowner" (what a weird word) or "one you know". Though the closest match I think would be "acquaintance".
Originally they were to help people stay connected (or I naively believe) with friends who they might otherwise drift away from. Over time the marketing and personal information selling aspect was realized and took over.

The difficulty with creating a new word, one that implies little connection, is that it gives too much information. Many of those friends may think you are actually their friend, and would be quite shocked to find out otherwise.
Isn't it like a modern version of a "pen pal"?

"A person with whom one becomes acquainted through a friendly, regular correspondence"

"Correspondence" being time spent chatting/messaging on sites like facebook, or in games like WoW.
In Polish there is the word "znajomy" which is the equivalent of the German "Bekannter". Both languages tend to be much more formal in distinguishing levels of relationships with German even having "Sie" as a formal "you". After spending the first half of my life in Poland and Germany I still have problems fully embracing the informality of the English language.

One reason for the "friend" phenomenom is probably that "acquaintance" is an awkward word to use and "friend" is just simpler to use. Of course that's what the marketing people want you to use to exploit the emotional appeal of the word.
Yeah. Its called Teammate. Your my friend while your on my team.
I think all of the examples you gave are of acquaintances. We still have very few "true" friends, but in the online space we are connected to so many people.

I am facebook friends with over 200 people. Some of them I haven't physically seen in years. I have guildmates in WoW on my friends list in game. That does not mean these people are actually my friends. They are all acquaintances.

Acquaintance: Knowledge of a person acquired by a relationship less intimate than friendship.
Let's be clear, they are not friends - that takes a certain amount of real interaction to establish. What they are is acquaintances. The problem is that in one of those "you still did good Tommy even though you lost" things the designers of social interfaces can't bring themselves to call a spade a spade. It's one of the reasons I don't frequent my facebook entry.
I take Bhagpuss point a little further and take more into the context of language.

I have always found the word Love in English very confusing because it is used for so many different feelings and not as differentiated as it is in other languages... the word like is also used quite a bit and they are not mutually exclusive. For example in Spanish one of the words for loves is a step up from like... you have to start liking something before you love it... in English most people just start loving things instantly... as far as I can tell.

It works the same thing with friendship... people don't use the word buddy or acquaintance to differentiate the true level of the relationship.

I have online friends that I have met through blogs whom I consider better friends that people that I have met face to face. I have shared more and have more interaction with them that some of my other face to face friends.

In game I have met about 20% of my guild and would like to meet a lot more people face to face, meeting face to face does make the connection a lot stronger... but to me not a requirement to earn the friend tag.

I have moved a lot and besides the 20 or so wow people, 90% of my connections on social networks like facebook I have met at one point or another and I over 200 of them I consider friends. I guess I went over the 150 quota long ago... but again, being in different geographic locations will do that to you.
The disadvantage of clarifying terminology is that it risks rudeness. If someone thinks of you as a friend, and you explicitly call him an "acquaintance" or some other non-friend word, he likely won't think of you as a friend (or even an acquaintance) for long.
For people in my guild that i don't know... well, they're guildies. Friends are people i know much better, and can trust pretty well (yes i consider some people i've met and played with friends). Only a very very very few would i consider a true friend. These are people who i trust to do just about anything if i needed help, and vice versa. I know maybe 3 people who would fall into this category, for me.

I don't know what you would call those facebook people who you've barely met, or have never met ;) I don't use facebook, i'm not into the whole 'social networking' thing!
Friend Test #1:

Tell person that you are moving this weekend and ask them to help.

If they say "no problem, just let me know when to be there" They are your friend.

Otherwise they are an acquaintance.
How about comrade? according to my dictionary, they're 'companions in some activity'.
Anyway, I totally agree with the post: I've often had the feeling that my 'friend lists' were 'not-totally-alien lists'.

Pretty much.

Facebook is what you make it. The games on it have forced... well encouraged you to have as many friends as possible to build the games playerbase.

My friend list is at about 50 people on Facebook and it is mainly people I don't get to see very often. I do alot of networking for various other activities and Facebook allows a more user friendly method than just emails.

Facebooks friends are what you make them though. Also Bhagpuss has a very good point. The english language is so moronic at times that two words can mean the opposite thing, it's context and inflection.

If someone thinks of you as a friend, and you explicitly call him an "acquaintance" or some other non-friend word, he likely won't think of you as a friend (or even an acquaintance) for long..

If someone thinks of you as a friend because you were forced to put them in a list, that just might be mislabled by the developer or site operator, then there is certainly no problem referring to them in the context of being an acquaintance if you've never met them, or associated with them anymore than saying "hello" or exchanging personal information in an online environment.

RJA was 100% correct when he quoted the link for the euphemism treadmill as it relates to this and other terminology.

How someone perceives their personal relationships with other people, hinges on that persons ability to recognize the context of those relationships, based on the unique characteristics of each one, in and of itself.
To the annoyance of English teachers, I would use cyberfriend for people like significant guildies. Cybercrime is probably in wide enough usage to be making it into dictionaries soon; everyone will know what I mean and why it is not quite as strong as friend, yet not pejorative enough to be able to use it in front of the designee.

Follower is pretty accurate for the description of voyeuristically following a blog or page and implying it is not a two-way street.

@Oscar, yes there are industries involved in harvesting Facebook names and how to monitize same. E.g. Google "Facebook SEO" or
@Vinnz: Comrade fits well for WoW, or My Tribes.

@Nees: Penpal is a bit stronger than acquaintances, in that they usually develop a type of friendship stronger than others (See Larisa and Ixobelle as a strong Penpal relationship that crossed into friendship).

I've made two friends in WoW (people who have crossed over into reality).
It's interesting to me as an American to read some of these comments. I have run across a few different people in wow that use the word "friend" a little too loosely for my taste. But on the other hand, and to answer your question Tobold, there isn't another word that I feel comfortable using. Someone is just going to have to come up with a new one. Acquaintance is too long and awkward to be used casually in my opinion.
I used to only use Facebook to lurk and see what others are doing. Now I play a couple of games. These games are pretty simplistic, and don't live up to the depth, strategy, and decision-making interaction I prefer in games. But, I do enjoy the writing in the D&D Tiny Adventures, and still play Castle Age for some reason.

BTW, I just buffed Kyroc for you. Be a good friend and buff me back. :)
I've actually had to explain to people on Facebook that I only accept friend requests from people I've met in the real world. Even so, most of my Facebook "friends" are more like "associates" or "acquaintances." Ten or twenty years from now the word "friend" will have lost most of its meaning, just like the words "hero" and "apologize" have. Nowadays people are "heroes" just for getting out of bed in the morning. Likewise, all someone had to do if caught doing something unethical is "apologize" and it makes everything better....
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