Last month, I realized Twitter may be making me a bad friend. I was hiking with a guy named Matt, a buddy of mine since middle school, and we were talking about what was new in our lives because we hadn’t seen each other for seven months. Halfway up a path between a stream and a meadow, Matt complimented some recent stories I’d written. I began to panic.
Matt blogs about open data as part of his job at a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, and I hadn’t read one of his posts since our last meeting. In fact, I hadn’t even read one of his tweets about his posts—or, it occurred to me, one of his tweets about anything. Matt’s not on Facebook, but he tweets often about articles he likes and riffs on government and baseball. I hadn’t paid attention to any of it.
“Thanks,” I said, in response to the compliment. Then I feigned interest in the surrounding mountains. “So, umm, what have you been up to at work?”
At about the same time social media exploded in popularity, critics began bashing it for ruining friendship. They've argued that clicking a button to “friend” someone encourages superficial connections, and pointed to studies that suggest people are getting ruder online. For the foreseeable future, however, social media is here to stay; criticizing its push toward social atomism won't change that. So I, like many people I know, instead try to resist the "bowling alone" social media phenomenon by behaving in a way that acknowledges its connection to real life. I email or direct message my close friends to catch up. I tag them to songs we love. I text on their birthdays instead of writing some lame note on their Facebook walls. Others may be rude, I convince myself, but I’ve kept up on my good-friend manners.
"There’s a little bit of work out there on people seeing everything on Facebook and not having enough things to say to each other. Small talk’s actually very important for friendships."
Knowing nothing about Matt’s digital life kicked my self-righteous attitude in the pants, though. It felt like I had broken a contract I never realized we had. Between computers at work and at home and the iPhone in my pocket, I spend almost no waking hours not connected to the Internet. What excuse did I have not to check up on his online exploits?
It dawned on me that even if Facebook, Twitter, and company aren’t turning me into a meaner, more superficial friend, they may be changing friendships’ rules. Recently, a Pew survey showed that despite young adults’ near-constant phone monitoring, more than a third are told they don’t check their phones frequently enough. More than half keep their phone by their beds to make sure they don’t miss anything. As we pressure ourselves into becoming more and more connected, is the need to stay up-to-date with each other’s lives shifting from an obsession to an expectation? Is it my duty as a friend to read my friends’ tweets?
“THAT COULD ABSOLUTELY BE an expectation that got established in a relationship today,” says Daniel Post Senning, author of Manners in a Digital World. Senning is a member of the family of etiquette experts descended from Emily Post, a 20th-century manners master. I called him shortly after the hike to talk about how codes of behavior formed on social media bleed into our relationships in person. I was also secretly hoping to be reassured that my gaffe on the trail wasn’t too serious.
Whether or not such an expectation exists depends on the relationship’s dynamic, but that dynamic itself increasingly is shaped by our interactions online, according to Senning. Social media is changing our understanding of friendship, and the biggest milestone yet may come when perusing someone’s tweets or profile suddenly becomes synonymous with staying in touch: a point at which it no longer sounds selfish to demand your friends read your status updates. Instead, monitoring your friends' social media accounts would be part of the basic behavioral definition of being a friend.
“It would no longer be, ‘Oh, I’m mad because you don’t read my Twitter feed,’” Senning says. “It would be, ‘I’m mad because you don’t pay attention to your friends.’”
"There used to be complaints that people always gave conditional replies to invites and never made the effort to have anyone back to their house, and those were very real etiquette faux pas," Senning says. "Now, following someone online can be another way to show that person you care. The more and more important information shared online becomes, the more important our ability to navigate it and behave well in online spaces matters."
Senning told me not to sweat my failure to follow Matt too much, though. New etiquette standards pop up at lightning speed in the digital world, and people find themselves in difficult situations all the time, he reassured me. Plus, we’re still not in the age when everyone should expect their entire social media output to be read. At least, not yet.
“I could see the pendulum swinging,” Senning says.
On that ominous note, I reached out to Bree McEwan, an assistant professor at Western Illinois University who studies friendships on- and offline. Senning was more willing to affirm my fears of friendships’ future direction than I anticipated, so I hoped McEwan’s research would offer a more scientific (and perhaps cheery) take on whether or not social media is saddling us with new obligations to our friends. Instead, she explained that the consequences of the different ways we stay in touch online are really difficult to measure.
In one of her recent experiments, for instance, she found that when Facebook friends message each other, scroll through each other’s timelines, or like each other's posts, they feel close. But when they see each other’s posts pop up unsolicited in their News Feeds, they actually feel worse about their relationship. “If you’re just posting stuff out there hoping to get a response, then that seems to have a negative impact on people,” McEwan says.
Results like these complicate the question of social media’s effects on the rules of friendship because they remind us that sites like Facebook and Twitter enable all different kinds of social exchanges, not all of which we enjoy. While it’s easy to assume that we all want to know everything about each other, stigmas against excessive sharing are among the things that show we still put limits on just how up to date we want to be. The person who insists you favorite their post about morning traffic or like an Instagram photo of their lunch is actually the one being a bad friend. Whether or not social media as a whole is bending or breaking the bounds of our tolerance for over-sharing is hotly debated, McEwan says.
If we were to commit ourselves to staying on top of our friends’ digital lives, things may get pretty awkward in the real world. “There’s a little bit of work out there on people seeing everything on Facebook and not having enough things to say to each other,” McEwan says. “Small talk’s actually very important for friendships. It can make for an awkward conversation when you say, ‘I was doing this on my vacation,’ and the other person says, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Where do you go from that?”
This was the case for blogger Dawn Bininger, who says she quit Facebook for a while after friends and family she saw around the holidays weren’t interested in hearing about her life because they’d already read about it. “I would tell them what I have been up to, things I felt were of great importance to me and would be interesting to them; I heard it more and more. ‘Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook’ and the topic seemed no longer important enough to discuss,” she writes. “Did they no longer feel the need to go shopping, grab a bite, or see a movie, because they were keeping tabs on me via Facebook? It kind of appeared that way.”
I feel bad for Bininger, but it’s hard for me to imagine that running out of things to talk about should be a major concern for most close friends. Instead, what worries me the most about failing an obligation to check up on my friends online is a different possibility McEwan suggested, the opposite of Bininger’s predicament: not having nothing to say, but missing out on an opportunity to say more. On a pragmatic level, reading your friends’ tweets and flipping through their pictures on Instagram are ways to cut down on the time you have to spend catching up whenever you see each other, so that you can dive more quickly into meaty, meaningful conversations. In this light, social media actually may help you get closer with your friends than ever before. But ignoring their updates could also be construed as worse than rude. You wouldn’t be making the most of your time together.
THE ACTUAL DIRECTION SOCIAL media is steering friendship, of course, largely depends on just how we decide to use the tools Zuckerberg and his competitors have created for us. If the totally unscientific poll of co-workers and friends I conducted while writing this piece is any indication, our current expectations for behavior, as Senning and McEwan speculate, are all over the map. “I have definitely heard people say, ‘you didn’t see it on my fbook??’” wrote one of Pacific Standard’s associate editors when I posed the issue to our Web staff chat room. “Everyone sort of laughs about it because you can’t be TOO serious about it yet.”
But there already are plenty of people like Erin McGeoy, a recent high school graduate and friend of the magazine’s summer intern. “It would be rude for a friend not to look at what I post, because what we post on social media is meant for our friends to see and we consider it important enough to post and share,” she texted him. “If you post something seeking encouraging words or congratulations, it can almost be kind of an insult when a friend that you haven't seen in a while doesn't know what’s going on in your life because they aren't looking at your profile or feed.”
McGeoy’s response underscores the scary downside I desperately wanted to disprove as I reported this piece—the fact that, as much as social media is introducing new ways to be friends, it is also introducing new ways to be perceived as a jerk. Presumably there have always been ways for humans to be frustrated with their friends for not paying attention to them; now the digital age has introduced its own.
My friend Matt, at least, didn’t hold anything against me. I confessed my anxiety over the phone a week after the hike, and he told me he hadn’t noticed the blunder. “I’d be hesitant to purposely dig into your social media profiles right before I saw you, because I think there’s some sort of authenticity at stake,” he says. “Part of the pleasure of seeing a friend is getting to catch up on all the stuff we missed.”
But, like all of us, he's still a little ambivalent. “If I know somebody follows me, I guess I’d still expect them to have some sense of what’s going on,” he adds. “It’s not that I’d feel any way about it. It’s just that in the back of my mind, there’d be some sort of assumption that someone who follows me on Instagram has seen some of my pictures, and maybe when we see each other, would say, ‘Oh, I saw you went there.’”