I wonder what Aristotle would think of Facebook.
The philosopher placed friendship on par with honor and justice, particularly friendship of virtue, which he described as a relationship based on selflessness and equality. In a virtuous friendship, he argued, you invest in the friendship purely for the good of your friend, not for the pleasure you receive from the friendship or, worse, the goods and services your friend can offer you.
He would hate
LinkedIn, obviously. Given his "He who hath many friends hath none" bit, he probably wouldn't have much use for Google Circles either. Facebook might earn points for reminding us to wish pals a happy birthday, but Aristotle probably would see through that too.
I love social media. Mostly because I'm really nosy but also because I like scrolling through the goofy musings and giddy boasts and thoughtful links and scrunched-up newborn faces and smiling wedding faces and thinking, "This is humanity."
But I don't think it fosters friendships. In fact, I think it makes me a lesser friend.
Twice in the last two weeks I have started to delete emails, unread, from friends who I assumed were contacting me in a more goods-and-services kind of way than a friendship-of-virtue kind of way. Both were from women I know to have distinguished careers and enviable networks and oodles of friends. I know this because Twitter tells me.
No biggie, then, if I ignore them.
These are the kinds of calculations we make when our lives feel too full and we're searching for something — anything — we can blow off. We start to wonder who really needs us and who wouldn't notice if we dropped out of civilization.
Well, I do, anyway.
"We tend to look at our friends in context and we tend to react to them in that context," says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work who researches adult friendships. "Certainly, if I have a friend who is lonely and doesn't have anyone in his life and he goes into the hospital, I'm going to make a greater attempt to call him than if he has a partner and children and parents and a network of loving support around him."
This is hardly foolproof, of course.
"The risk is that we're going to project onto them what may not, in fact, be true," Greif says. "I may think my friend has many friends and much support, but if a lot of people are thinking that way, no one's going to take individual responsibility to check in on that friend."
I fear I've done that. I fear I've thought about calling a pal and then remembered she has 1,756 Facebook friends and decided to read a book instead.
And I fear that's been as much about my own insecurities as anything else. We tend to think of ourselves in context, too, after all. What do I bring to this very full table?
"We can misinterpret or underestimate our own importance," Greif says. "I may undervalue myself in general, and I'm going to carry that undervalued feeling into whether I decide to reach out to a friend."
None of this is very virtuous, of course. But it's all very human.
I ended up opening those emails and discovering that, in both cases, the women were writing me personal notes to say "hi" and wish me well and catch me up on their lives.
Are those friendships of virtue? Maybe not. Are they friendships of utility? (The shallowest kind, according to Aristotle.) I'm not sure it matters.
The point is there's a huge amount of space between your closest kindred spirit and the colleague you occasionally meet for drinks. Enough space, in some cases, for thousands of friends, online and otherwise.
But there's still space for good will, the stuff that friendships of virtue are based on. We can check up on that friend for her sake, not ours. We can assume she'd appreciate — be moved by, even — hearing from us. We can find a thing, not a person, to blow off.
And that truly is humanity.