Is a Friendship Conducted Only in Facebook “Likes” a Real Relationship?

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July 17 2014 8:13 AM

The Upvote Friendship

Are “one-click actions” supplanting—or supplementing—actual relationships?

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Illustration by Slate. Image by Shutterstock.

Over the past year, I’ve kept friends in the loop with Facebook updates on my Dadaist birth control dreams, that time I woke up looking like Evgeni Plushenko, my evolving perspective on Breaking Bad, NYC real estate snark, and photo documentation of myself in an Ikea monkey costume.

My indulgent friends bestow “likes” on these status updates—and in many cases, those quick upvotes are the only contact we’ve had in a long time. Often enough, it’s a consistent exchange of upward-facing thumbs—a way of suddenly communicating again, but not directly. This effect, I’m sure, is widespread, but among the many existential quandaries brought about by social media, there's something altogether new and different about maintaining relationships with people that are entirely limited to liking each other's posts. Let's call this the “upvote friendship.”

Are you currently engaged in an upvote friendship? Here are the signs:

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  • You and your social media friend habitually “like” each other’s posts.
  • You don’t typically comment or message each other.
  • You and SMF exchange no form of direct communication.
  • SMF may even have a habit of not responding to your attempts to initiate direct communication, but will continue appreciating your cat GIFs from afar.

All of this, of course, leads to a question that's admittedly been beaten to death already: Is social media/the Internet/technology degrading the quality of our relationships, or has it actually paved the way for a greater level of connectedness? Would we wind up writing to one another more if the “like” button never existed, or would we stop hearing from old friends altogether?

In 1872, Charles Darwin was laying the groundwork for a possible answer. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he applied his famous evolutionary perspective to questions like: “Why do we wrinkle our nose when we are disgusted and bare our teeth when we are enraged?” If he were writing today, he might ask, “Why do we ‘like’ each other’s Facebook posts but ignore each other’s texts?”

Nonverbal signals account for two-thirds of all communication. As the old canard goes, actions (and tone and body language) speak louder than words. But what if someone communicated with you using only body signals and eye contact? In theory, tacit signals like these can all be traced back to behaviors that once helped us survive in the wild. Divorced from their usual context of spoken language, they could very well land you with that modern-day survival mechanism we call a restraining order.

Of course, you can’t entirely equate the things you do in person with the things you do behind a screen. But even before the Internet, social psychologist Michael Argyle raised the hypothesis that we rely on verbal communication to talk about things that are unrelated to us personally—nonverbal language is what we use to convey our feelings for one another. It might also simply be more polite or prudent to keep your words to a minimum.

Moreover, these tendencies may merely be a symptom of communication overload. As Peter Andersen proposed in Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions, “immediacy behaviors” (such as smiling, touching, and eye contact) occur more frequently in high-contact cultures. What is the Internet, if not a turbo-contact culture?

More than one person I spoke with on this topic pointed out that research suggests our brains can only handle a certain number of relationships at any given time. Studies of primate brains have arrived at Dunbar's number, which is about 150, as being our maximum friend capacity. However, Facebook data scientist Moira Burke thinks that Facebook acts as a sort of bionic social noggin—before, we were clocking in at around 150. Now, that number is likely somewhat higher thanks to the advent of what she calls “lightweight interactions” on social media.

Burke and her colleague Robert Kraut recently published a longitudinal study of 3,649 Facebook users that suggests all interaction is constructive interaction—tie strength increased through direct communication and “one-click” actions alike. The effect was merely greater for interactions that took more effort. Though Burke says that the calculations are too complicated to pin down exactly how they compare against each other, composed interactions led to an increase in tie strength of 0.02 compared with no interaction at all. One-click actions led to an increase of 0.01. That’s something, right?  

It comes as little surprise, then, that Burke takes a much less cynical approach to all of this.

“Think about how great it feels to receive a lot of ‘likes’ on a post—you look through the list of likers and reflect on your relationships with them,” she said. 

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