What is a ‘friend’? I know that sounds a stupid question on the face of it, but it is bugging me.

We’ve just been having conversations about contemporary culture in Germany and England and the pressures facing (particularly) young people in societies that are changing rapidly. It has been an informed, challenging and stimulating conversation – it always is when you engage with people from a different culture – and I have more questions than answers. But, then I came across the Guardian article about a Japanese guy who runs an agency for providing ‘rent-a-friend’ facilities for lonely Japanese.

FriendsWell, given Japanese culture and some of the factors mentioned in the article, the creation of a false friend agency might not be totally surprising – even if it is somewhat depressing. But this chimed in with something we were talking about during the Communications Conference in Rome last week: why does Facebook tell you you have ‘friends’ when they are nothing of the sort?

At best most of them are virtual acquaintances. And what sort of friendship do we encourage when we use the word ‘friend’ to describe a relationship in which you can simply delete someone who offends or bores you? How does that help grow people to work at relationships, cope with disappointment, learn to forgive and be forgiven, and so on?

I realise this is sounds like miserable nostalgia-seeking. However, I am not against new ways of building communities or getting people to relate to each other. Indeed, I think new media and social networking facilities are opening up all sorts of new possibilities for relating. But I am not sure that diluting notions of friendship by the shallow use of the word ‘friend’ in such fickle contexts is helpful to concepts of healthy relationships.

facebookI guess I am saying that a friend has to be known. And you can’t know someone you don’t know – or can easily dismiss if the relationship ceases to please you.

So, we shouldn’t sneer at the Japanese initiative unless we also address the weaknesses in our own culture.

I once set up a Facebook page in order to see what all the fuss was about. People started to want to be my ‘friend’ and I started getting emails telling me that someone had ‘written on my wall’. So, I ran in the opposite direction, not knowing what my ‘wall’ was or why anyone would want to write on it. I have not been back into Facebook since that first venture.

Twitter logo 1I got signed up to Twitter after being persuaded that it was a good way of propagating this blog -and that not to be on Twitter would leave the blog ‘hidden’. So, I signed up, had a few bitty conversations, worked out how it works and then worked out how best to use it. But, now for a quick detour…

In today’s Independent Janet Street-Porter strikes a blow against Twitter and those who use it. Well, actually it is less a blow and more a savaging with a slightly damp flannel. This is what she says:

Since the G20 riots in the City of London and the highly controversial Iranian election, there’s a determined lobby trying to convince us that Twitter represents the ultimate in news gathering. For facts, we’ve traded reactions… But all twittering really delivers is the ultimate in mini-munchie banality. Instead of real emotion, in-depth opinion, considered arguments about why the NHS works, or the many reasons for not eating veal, what we get is breathless trivia…

Twitter works for the middle class, the middle-aged and for work-weary wannabe trendies because it lets them feel they’re part of a big happening club, when in fact all they are doing is exchanging mindlessness. If I want to know whether a show is worth going to at the Edinburgh Festival, or if Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album is worth buying, I certainly don’t want a 140-character Twitter; I want an intelligent review written in real sentences, not some bastard lingo that’s the ugly love-child of texting and abbreviations.

Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, reducing lives and experiences (like childbirth and death) to missives that last even less than the average British male’s attempts at foreplay…

Twittering about the pros and cons of the NHS reduces a complex subject to less than a soundbite or a jingle. Don’t tell me Twitter is brilliantly democratic and lively. It makes me angry that we’re so keen to stop talking in sentences, and are swapping having real conversations for knee-jerk reactions. If this is the future for politics, we’re in trouble.

Surely, if Janet Street-Porter has anything to do with the future of politics, we’re in serious trouble, as she promotes dismissive ignorance in sentences that might have been better left unwritten.

The real value of Twitter is not the boring narcissists who detail their every thought and every move. And Twitter is not the only home to boring narcissists. The real value of Twitter is not even the propagation of instant news at the cost of informed comment (which clearly isn’t what JSP gives us anyway) – yet the facility of instant communication to a wider community clearly has massive advantages in exposing the lies of the ‘powerful’ (look at the Iranian election in which technology could not be used to hide or suppress the truth). The real value of Twitter doesn’t even lie in the speed with which people can bait me for Liverpool’s defeat against Spurs yesterday – anyway, two can play at that game…

The real value of Twitter is that people post links to other sites where people write in proper sentences and give considered attention to things that matter. Twitter is a vehicle for an otherwise disconnected community to pass on sources of information or observation that might otherwise have been missed. The 140 characters are a means, not an end. Is that so hard for JSP to understand?

I would not have read some of the powerful and well-written stuff on blogs about the NHS if I hadn’t been tipped off by Glinner on Twitter. And I wouldn’t have noticed JSP’s silly article had I not been pointed to it on Twitter. (Which, I realise, does suggest a downside to the use of the medium…)

Which is why (I assume) the Independent uses Twitter to propagate its own news and comment – a medium JSP ignorantly thinks is worthless.