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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

By Charles Spencer

Beate Roessler presenting at the 54th annual Bishop John Fletcher Hurst Philosophy Lecture.

Beate Roessler presenting at the 54th annual Bishop John Fletcher Hurst Philosophy Lecture.

Do social networks like Facebook change the norms of friendship? 

That was the subject of the 54th annual Bishop John Fletcher Hurst Philosophy Lecture, presented by Beate Roessler, professor of ethics at the University of Amsterdam and coeditor of the European Journal of Philosophy. 

Social research shows that most of us have from three to five real friends and about 150 acquaintances, Roessler said. On Facebook, however, that distinction gets blurred. 

“In these different relationships, one presents oneself differently,” Roessler said. “I present myself differently here than at home, and so on. Norms of informational privacy regulate the different relationships. That is actually the thesis I want to argue for because it links the problem of friendship and Facebook.” 

“If you understand informational privacy norms,” Roessler added, “then you understand what can go wrong in friendships on Facebook.” 


What friendship means 

True friendship requires us to reveal things about ourselves, to share experiences, noted Roessler, whose publications include The Value of Privacy. Privacy and friendship, she maintained, are intricately linked. 

“What has friendship got to do with informational privacy norms?” she asked. “Self-disclosure, dialogue, and identity-constitution are among the essential functions of friendship—self-disclosing in the sense that you can really talk about yourself or you can really talk about your problems, your plans, for instance.” 

Communicating with friends is also a way we construct our identities. Facebook’s flattened notion of friendship makes this impossible. 

The Tyler Clementi case (in which a Rutgers student committed suicide after his roommate and another student used a webcam without his knowledge to broadcast Clementi having sex with a male student) “showed among other things that it’s very difficult to find your way online,” Roessler said. “And you can make mistakes which are horrible and less excusable than offline mistakes. That’s certainly one of the dangers.” 

But Facebook’s architecture is the biggest obstacle to encouraging a classic notion of friendship. 

“The design of the social networks makes it almost impossible to present yourself in significantly different ways,” she said. Audience separation, which allows you to “present yourself differently to different people, [and] which is an aspect of your freedom, is made almost impossible on Facebook. You can have your own groups but you can’t exclude people. You can’t say these people should not be one of my friends. You can de-friend, but not for a week or for a special message . . . The audience separation is one of the big problems on Facebook.” 


Debunking stereotypes 

Critics sometimes maintain this is less a problem for young people because they don’t value privacy. But Roessler said she didn’t buy that idea. 

“It’s empirically just wrong,” she said. “All the studies show that young people do care about privacy, in different ways from my generation, but they do care about privacy and they do care about how they present themselves on Facebook.” 

“If we want to live a rich and diverse and autonomous life, we need information privacy norms,” Roessler insisted. “And if we want to have friends, we need information privacy norms as well.” 

The April 10 event was sponsored by AU’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.