We took the picture at least half a dozen times: beyond the basic requirement of ensuring everyone was in frame, we also considered light, composition and angles. The power pieces worn had to be shown at their optimum and the emoji-praise inducing accessories had to be visible (all the better for the repost/tag the designer action that would follow). It goes without saying that everyone had to be presenting their slimmest, tallest, self (drop a shoulder, one foot slightly forward, we know the drill) and the facial expressions had to be casual-but-still-sensational, either that or funny-ironic-but-fine-sha. Once posted, the likes and comments would ensue, and that picture with all its connotations of beauty, glamour and style would be the digital imprint left behind of the evening. According to the picture: the #squad was #slaying, #blessed and hanging with #sisterfriends. But were we friends in the old-school sense of the word? Or even to bring it more new school – was this an ensemble of ride-or-die crew or a carefully curated #squad, Taylor Swift styles, that was merely doing for the ‘gram, retweets and social media upscaling?
At MO, whilst we don’t front about the way in which the exterior moves us on so many levels; we have decided to explore a tricky question. Is friendship in crisis and was modern technology, social media in particular, to blame for it? As we have all become masters of online curation, have real life friendships changed because of the digital age’s expectations of perfection? Has the way we communicate: infinitely more via a screen, without the physical cues of body language, tone of voice and eye to eye contact to gauge the reception to our comments altered friendship? And is intimacy and trust something from a dim and distant past and we are now awash with frenemies in our friendship circle? I sent out a survey to males and females from 17 – 60 + and was both surprised, encouraged and challenged by the answers. In unpacking it all I hope to offer my own thesis of how friendship has changed and what if anything at all we should do about it. We still need love, no doubt about that one, but the digital age and its tools of the trade have definitely changed the way we conduct ourselves in our closest relationships.
Age and life experience did not seem to alter the need for friendship: one of my oldest respondents, talked of how her friends had witnessed so much of her life, that no major life event did not in some way feature them. As children were born and raised, they flitted between the friendship circle’s houses, calling everyone ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ regardless of whether they were actually related. Their group was, surprising to me, on WhatsApp and, they still brought it and then some, especially when it came to their aso’ebi wearing activities, particularly at their children’s weddings. Parties usually included them dancing in a circle to their favourite tracks for hours at a time, and believe it or not, they are in their 60s! At the other end of the scale, a respondent in her 30s simply stated: “I am blessed with authentic friendships and supportive friends.” Present on the most popular social media channels, the respondent talked at length about not being swayed by what she saw online “I’m very focused on character when it comes to friendship and not image.” But in light of this primal need to not only be heard, but also to connect, the gaze of social media is ever present.
One of the great assumptions is that the dominance of social media has resulted in the end of friendship in real life. The responses I received illustrated it was more nuanced than that. Yes, social media was a behemoth, with the multiple and ever growing number of platforms we use to connect, but it was actually more of a tool to do what human beings have always done which is get closer to their existing circle: “I see social media as a way to communicate and share stories and memories with already existing friends.” Shared by one of my younger respondents, this is completely at odds with the perception that the Post Millennial Generation principally sought validation from randoms on the internet. The same respondent had a surprisingly laissez-faire approach to posting and staying ‘relevant’ on various platforms: “I have never been in a situation where I have, for example, worried that if I do not tweet enough or share enough selfies that friends will start to drift away.” The self-=confidence exhibited was anomalous to other responses in this corresponding age group where constant updates and the accompanying FOMO feelings that friends’ posts put strains on friendships or made real-life meetings several shades of awkward, was ever present. The FOMO was only actually there, because you wish you had been in the moment captured on screen.
But back to all those perfectly polished images on our feeds. Are these people ‘real friends’? Is our image the main event of what we are seeing now and has it affected how we assess who we invest time in? Respondents by and large came down on not being only governed by what they saw on social media feeds; but looking good and assessing others in that locus repeatedly popped up. ”I think it’s always important in life to present the best version of yourself, the version of yourself that you are most proud of, in public and I guess by extension, on social media.” Fair enough, one could conclude, indeed another Post Millennial buttressed the point further: “I don’t like to appear uncool and always like to look well dressed.” Their accepted focus on image did not seem to damage the profundity of their relationships, it anything it only enhanced what was already there. It also helps to have a certain level of confidence. Without revealing compromising their anonymity I can attest that in both instances, these individuals’ feeds have the winning combo of candor, irreverence and joie de vivre. One would look and definitely want to be their friend, or at least hang out, maybe at some secret party that they are clearly going to be invited to and you aren’t, lol!
However, as with anything there are losers in this game, one respondent mentioned, albeit sheepishly that:” Appearance on social media is too important, social media is everything today so it’s a major key…Looking rundown on Instagram or Twitter is never a win for me and the crew. I think if I am being honest with myself, I probably dropped friends for how they looked.” And before readers decide this kind of brutal thinking is for teens and twenty-somethings alone, one can see strains of it in older respondents: “Truth is, we are drawn to people that are similar to us and that probably creates an image or perception however superficial.” Still another shared: ”…if I am being candid then I admit it’s always nice to look good and I also like my friends looking good also, but never to the extent where I think I can only be seen with certain friends or take photos with certain friends” And my favourite because I love the swag proclaimed therein: “everyone wants to look good on social media…I do most times.”. Are these women close friends with each other? Absolutely. Probably sister-friends such is the extent of shared experiences, history and intimacy shared. But looking good has also become part of the equation. We all own it, we all enjoy it and we are all participating in it. And for those who are afraid of the possibility of a swipe left situation, or finding yourself perennial cropped from the snap? I would subscribe to the great leveler called good light, failing that the Reyes filter on IG (it softens everything that needs to be softened) and if still it’s a bust, then lots of pictures of your accessories…if they are fabulous enough you will prevail!
But jest aside, perhaps the greatest challenge to friendships are the old nutshells of foundational shifts: life stage changes were constantly mentioned as reasons for things going awry; with location moves, marriage and children being the biggest culprits for friendship altering. One married respondent with children put the situation in sharp focus: “It definitely has [changed things] …That is one of my biggest issues, I spent quite a lot of time travelling making friends in different walks of life …. they have moved on [and] we grew apart. It takes a very special friendship to be able to sustain distance, developments and challenges.” Sharing a similar narrative but from the perspective of the single friend another shared: “If you’ve both been single and if that has been your vibe…it does change things and you have to work through with it.” We are conditioned to gravitate to people where we have common experiences, and whilst many are cool with the juggle others want things easier as another remarked: “For me it is easier to mix with friends in the same life stage…It makes things less complicated…And also gives us ‘content’ for our friendship.” It would seem that by and large the friendship rose or fell on the efforts made to plough through the divergences in life milestones. In some instances, social media was the vehicle that created immediacy in terms of communication; but equally it could add fuel to the friendship-in-crisis-fire, as images depicting how far away you now were, in terms of activities and goals was made visually apparent.
As with romantic love, the formation of friendships can be intense. One boozy conversation at a house-party can morph into frequent messaging, turbo sharing and whenever you do meet face-to-face, lengthy all day hangs. It is glorious, but just like the first flush of romance, there needs to be some more sedate elements in the mix for sustainability’s sake. The two peas in a pod, sister from another mother flow can be amazing; one respondent spoke of thinking her oldest friend was an actual relative, but it can also bring with it challenges. It becomes easier to assess one another in relation to oneself, after all you are spending so much time with one another, and as anyone who has played the “compare and despair” game will attest, misery follows: “we have been through a lot…. but we used to rile each other up….there was a lot of competition but now we’re a lot more supportive…not seeing each other all the time has made a difference.” One of the greatest emotional challenges is managing and recalibrating a friendship, especially if it had a heady intoxicating beginning. This is when social media can be both a friend and foe. If you’re in the midst of a ‘rile-up season’ as the respondent so evocatively described, every communique will be seasoned with the piquant flavours of offence and combativeness. It can be hard to support one another if you are too busy point scoring, or seeking rationalised reason for shifts, where you of course are the exonerated party. It takes courage to attempt to move forward, or to face the crisis head on. Also frightening and an aider and abettor of friendship rot is how easily social media has allowed for such dormant relationships to ‘live on’ even if in real life you long checked out of meaningful engagement. You can ‘like’ posts, respond with emojis and pose for the occasional group selfie and no one will be any the wiser, after all it isn’t as if you clicked unfollow, Right?
The other fly in the ointment in modern friendships is the notion of the frenemy. We all know one; you’re on good terms on paper, but there is something off in their behaviour; a bit too much schadenfreude when things go tits up for you, although often peppered with those dastardly emojis again. A double sad face for a loss in the family/job and/or lover? No, I don’t think it cuts it either. The social anxiety caused by social media is amplified because we don’t have the visual and aural cues of interaction in real-life: respondents across the full spectrum of ages talked to this point: “sometimes I question the friendship relationship when some of my close friends act in a certain way.” Another respondent added rather potently in capitals: “I do feel connected and supported by (SOME) of my friends.” Still another stated: ”[Re] friends who are not my real friends – I try not to but I suffer from chronic paranoia plus a few experiences life has thrown my way. ” It seems that the frenemy is not going away anytime soon. But how does one tackle it? Quite simply by spending a little more time hanging out in the realms of face to face reality. It is harder to maintain BS looking someone in the eye, and all those weird conflicting messages they make, become clear as crystal. If you have been guilty of having ”collected” some ”strategic” pals along the way, who if you are brutally honest, you don’t particularly like, perhaps it is time to do the right thing and let them go? We all lead increasingly busy lives and it is only right and fair that the little leisure time one does have is shared in emotionally and spiritually edifying encounters, rather than ones that feel endemically booby-trapped.
So, what can one conclude from all these findings, granted from a relatively small sample group but one that cut across gender, age, race and background? Well first the good news, friendship is alive and well. All the respondents spoke to that; “A wedding ceremony…without sexuality” being the most poetic and intimate description of what friendship can feel like. However, one cannot ignore the consequences, some extremely adverse that social media has had on trust, intimacy and feelings of belonging. The anxiety and internal conflict experienced can be tricky to navigate: “…I sometimes get anxious that people never really know one another and sometimes that feels lonely.” Though we are connected there are still so many unsaid ‘saids’ and though there are infinite ways to connect the isolation when it comes can feel all the more acute for it. We have become masters of camouflage-by-text-characters in our messages and those that dare to raise a head above the parapet are labelled weirdos. Even when the response one has received has been largely positive the reasons and motivations behind the positivity can stifle: ” I think some people that know nothing about me get carried away by the lifestyle…or love the idea of me…they want to be friends with me just because of how they visualise me. ” No one likes to be objectified obsessively and yet social media is the breeding ground of such objectification. Ultimately, social media should be seen for what it is: a communication tool that helps one get their message across, whatever it is, quicker. One respondent’s distillation of this truth ” it’s not about being hot, it’s about being interesting and informative and savvy and cool and having a voice… ” couldn’t speak more poignantly to everyone I communicated with. The likes may come and go, we might inspire often ,and alienate occasionally, but we will always have a primordial need to seek out communities where we have affinity, where we can bond and where we can feel the most basic and beautiful of human needs, love.