TRA Journal

The future of friendship. It’s complicated.

Antonia Mann

At Facebook’s F8 conference this year, Mark Zuckerberg boasted that with the new Facebook AR camera you could add a second coffee mug to your picture “so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone”. Hang on. I thought the Internet, and Facebook in particular, was about connecting people. In fact, in the history of time, have people ever had so many friends? “Friends,” rather.

Such contradictions are inherent in the evolving human relationship to technology. With technology and social media an inseparable part of how we navigate relationships today, the meaning and dynamics of friendship have changed, and the term “friend” itself has become inadequate. Heavy with certain expectations and assumptions, it does not reflect the many different degrees of friendship and related behaviours that digital technology and social media has introduced into our lives.

While social media and other technologies give us greater options for finding, connecting and maintaining friendships, how easy is it to nurture fundamental elements of friendship such as honesty, trust, empathy, intimacy, and vulnerability in a post-truth, alternative facts, cat-fishing, trolling, ghosting, cyber-bullying online world that breeds behaviour quite the opposite of this.

“Trying to find the person in between the life they’ve created virtually and the real life. I think that’s the biggest problem of our generation now. Just living every day.” – TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

Such conflicts and paradoxes are well-known: being more connected helps sufferers of anxiety and depression yet also causes depression; we have more friends than ever yet feel more isolated. Our research on millennials showed they are very aware of the contradictions. Savvy and sceptical about navigating online relationships millennials are nevertheless troubled by real life consequences and visceral emotional responses.

It’s an accepted fact that we all promote certain sides of ourselves on social media. While they may have hundreds or thousands of “friends” online, millennials are conscientious about who their real friends are. The crowded online friendship space reflects the overwhelming busy-ness that people feel in their real lives, and their true friends are the ones they make time for.

And while millennials are adept navigators of the digital friendscape, many fear that their IRL social skills are being affected by the amount of time they spend communicating digitally. 

“I don’t even like talking to people on the phone anymore. Being able to communicate has become easier but it doesn’t mean we have become better communicators.” – TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

“It widens your circle 10x. You get invited to events easily, there’s just no limit to how far you can go socially with Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. However, I do feel I am more comfortable in the social media wold, talking to people there rather than meeting up.” – TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

Digital communications allow people to avoid awkward and emotionally uncomfortable moments. Thus when those moments do happen in real life, rather than being able to deal with awkwardness as a normal part of everyday communication, we hide.

Sherry Turkle, social psychologist and Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, calls this the “Goldilocks effect”. You can have your friendships at the temperature you want them – not too close, not too distant, just right. And when you want to end things, it can usually happen without penalty from family or community.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age on how flight from conversation is undermining our relationships, creativity, and productivity, Turkle argues that all the instant messages, texts and minimally effortful “likes” and asynchronous communications are diminishing people’s capacity for empathy and ability to communicate in real life situations. One of the more prevalent behavioural examples of this is the rather deplorable practice of “ghosting,” the unilateral ending of a relationship by suddenly stopping all communication with no explanation. A common occurrence in the dating scene, friends can certainly be ghosted, too.

If you do not participate in the online dating or friendship scene, however, don’t feel smug that you have escaped such experiences. Our fading capacity for human interaction is potentially happening in many areas of life and affecting all sorts of relationships. Consider that people can and do shut themselves inside and entertain themselves, order and organise their food, groceries, cleaner, driver all through an app, without having to talk to anyone. Not great for your small talk skills. Considering collaboration is one of the most important skills for how we work today, without empathy and compassion that collaboration is going to unravel pretty quickly.

But let’s say we do decide to leave the house and make some IRL friends. Yes, there are apps for that. Funnily, enough, it was dating apps like Tinder that broke ground for friendship apps to become normalised. Hey!Vina is a friend-finding app for women who are travelling or just moved to a new city. Huggle is an app that introduces people based on common location and interests, rather than appearances.

Despite warnings of our diminishing social skills, disappearing capacity for empathy and algorithmic-based means of finding friends, you actually do need some interpersonal skills to move from chat to meeting to actual friendship. And you need the gumption, vulnerability and risk of rejection to go out and meet someone. According to eHarmoney, 20% of those in current, committed relationships began online and 7% of marriages in 2015 were between couples that met on a dating website – a significant number which suggests that people are managing to communicate fairly well, whichever their preferred combination of channels. 

But apps are just the latest invention that is providing a tool to fulfil a basic human need for companionship. The tools we use to fulfil this need will evolve as technology does, but the underlying desire won’t. And if we look towards the future, not even that far, we see robots, AI and machine learning. Which begs the question, what will honesty, trust, empathy, intimacy, and vulnerability look like in such a world?

Popular culture has imagined many scenarios for this. It’s hard to talk about the future of relationships without talking about the movie Her, the story of a man who falls in love with his operating system. 

“Even if you come home late and I'm already asleep, just whisper in my ear one little thought you had today. Because I love the way you look at the world. And I'm so happy I get to be next to you and look at the world through your eyes” - Theodore Twombly, Her

Currently, every major technology player is developing a voice-activated AI assistant, or operating system. According to a Guardian article, people who have bought Amazon’s Alexa frequently report that they quickly and easily start thinking of the device as a proxy member of the family. “Even when I’ve tried to call her ‘it’, it feels wrong. She has a name. She’s Alexa.”

In fact, humans succumb quite easily to humanising robots. Back in the early 1960s, MIT computer scientist Joesph Wiezenbaum invented ELIZA, a computer therapist or in today’s terms, chatbot therapist (albeit her intelligence was made up of only pre-programmed questions and responses) and let non-technical staff interact with her. He was astounded and appalled to discover that some ended up spending hours sharing personal problems with ELIZA, believing she could help them. Other studies have shown that humans find it hard to be mean to robots once they are humanised, for example, finding it hard to turn them off when they are pleading with you to not. 

While much effort is going into making robots and artificial intelligence more human, the fact that robots have always been presented as non-emotional, without judgement or reaction, can work in their favour. It has been found that in certain situations, people open up more to robots than humans, particularly when the context may be taboo or illegal. 

Robots are probably the ultimate friends – you can tell them everything, they keep secrets, they will do practical things for you that makes your life easier, you won’t have to deal with their neuroses and emotional dramas, they won’t judge you, and they will never, ever ghost you. But unless we completely lose our capacity for empathy and compassion, we are likely to still feel guilty if we try to terminate these friendships. This human experience is examined in the critically acclaimed Black Mirror episode “Be right back” where a woman orders an AI clone of her deceased boyfriend but soon realises it will never replace him. Though she tries, she is ultimately unable to get rid of him, and keeps him in the attic for years to come.

Should the reality of our relationships end up following the imaginings of popular culture, perhaps AI achieving sentience will force humans to regain the humanity that seems to be slipping through our fingers.