Friendship and Facebook

I’ve read a bit about the philosophy of friendship over the years, but none of it is much use when encountering Facebook for the first time. Thinking myself too middle-aged for what I thought to be a youth site I hadn’t even looked at it until last week, when Jacques Chester asked me to link to a Liberty and Society group and I decided (in my middle-aged caution) to check before I linked. But I had to join first, and every day since I have received emails from Facebook telling me that person X, Y or Z has added me as a ‘friend’ and wanting to confirm that we are in fact ‘friends’.

In most cases, it’s been pretty easy to ‘confirm’ these people as friends. But can I be a ‘friend’ of someone whose name and face I don’t recognise? (from the friends we have in common I presume we must have met, but I don’t remember it). Or someone whose name and face I do recognise but I haven’t seen them, been in touch with them, or even thought of them for years? On the other hand, not confirming someone as a ‘friend’ could be seen as rude. Just because I am not a friend doesn’t mean I want to make an enemy.

I am a little sorry that Facebook is stretching the concept of ‘friendship’. Though of course friendship long predates liberalism, it seems to embody the liberal voluntary ideal more than other forms of social relationship. Pre-Facebook at least, it was a relationship of mutual agreement, in which the parties chose each other. You can’t choose your family or your neighbours or even your colleagues most of the time, but you can choose your friends.

But Facebook won’t affect other liberal aspects of friendship. Unlike other forms of voluntary relationships such as marriage or employment based on legal frameworks, in friendship the parties (usually implicitly) set all their own relationship rules. These rules often evolve over time, adapting to signals from each other and circumstances, like a market. Friendship is one of the very few areas of society in which there is virtually no state interference from Western liberal democracies. It is one of the last realms of near-complete freedom.

86 thoughts on “Friendship and Facebook

  1. Russell, exploit is a good word isn’t it? Just by mentioning it you can slate someone’s reputation and come up as morally superior. Sometimes I wonder whether the left is more about making its proponents feel better about themselves than having any real understanding about what people want and what motivates them.
    People need protecting against the state and individuals who haven’t learnt that cooperative voluntary behaviour is the best way to get ahead.
    If someone starts from a poor background, works hard, takes advantage of all their opportunities and natural skills and comes out the other side as an upwardly mobile middle class person, they go from deserving protection from the exploitative classes to being the exploiters themselves in the eyes of many on the left. How can a person fundamentally change in such a way? They are just a person with their own dreams and ambitions, and yet if they achieve them, they become a class traitor and enemy. That might be a bit of old school socialism talk, but when guys like Clive Hamilton and David Williamson bemoan the chattering classes for their materialism, it is hard not to think that they really do hate successful people.


  2. In one sense no act is selfless because people always act in such a way that they create an outcome they prefer to the alternative. Otherwise they wouldn’t have acted that way. If I give food to a poor person it’s a fairly likely that I prefer a world where that poor person has some food.

    But this gets a bit to semantics. It would be equally legitimate to split voluntary behaviour into “love-based” and “profit-based” and while both may be “selfish” in the unusual sense that Brendan and I (and some economic philosophers) sometimes use… there is obviously a difference in motivation between (1) aiming primarily to help others; and (2) aiming primarily to help yourself.

    Whatever you call it — everybody agrees that “love-based voluntary interaction” is good. Libertarians complain (with good reason) that government crowds out “love”. It’s a shame. Most people agree that, in David Friedman’s words “love is not enough”. We then need to supliment that approach either with “profit-based voluntary interactions” (ie the market) or “violence/coercion”. Obviously, libertarains prefer the former.

    As for facebook… I think it offers a useful service for quick’n’nasty keeping in contact with semi-friends and catching up with people on your own time & in 2 minutes.

    Prediction: At the moment facebook seems pointless the same way that mobile phones, e-mail and SMSs seemed pointless to the middle aged… just before they became obvious.


  3. John, on your prediction, you’re probably right. But all the technologies you mention refer to one-on-one communication. My middle-agedness lies in that I can’t understand group/collective communication tools like facebook, YouTube and MySpace. Of course I watch videos of wacky Japanese game shows and people being gored in the butt on YouTube, but I can’t say they enhance my life beyond being a momentary diversion.


  4. “Clive and David seem fairly successful to me – it’s the materialism they’re criticising, not success.”

    My problem with David (and probably Clive as well) is that by anyone’s material standards they are very well off (I believe that David has a harbourside home in Sydney as well as properties in other desirable locations). So when they preach about the evils of materialism they are mainly preaching to and about people who are worse off than they are.


  5. BG – you’re looking at it the wrong way around. Materialism isn’t the things around you (this is from my Buddhist phase) but your desire for or attachment to them – your valuing of them. Clive and David are criticising that desire and attachment.

    Rajat – I have a couple of friends who have glamorous lives and instead of emailing all their friends they keep website diaries plus photos of their travels. That means people can keep up with their lives and respond to them individually when and if they want to. A good idea. I’ve never owned a mobile ‘phone and with a bit of luck will get to my grave without ever having received an SMS.

    JH – I think that a lot of the time people just act out of habit and impulse without any weighing up of benefits or consequences, and that’s one reason why there are countless, everyday selfless acts.


  6. Russell – are you seriously suggesting that David Williamson did not desire and is not attached to his harbourside property and the other trappings of success that he enjoys?

    When He and Clive sell up all their worldly goods and move to the western suburbs or equivalent, I might take them seriously, but from where I sit it looks to me as if they are morally outraged by working class people aspiring to the kind of lifestyle that can only be properly appreciated by middle class people.


  7. Off with those tall poppies’ heads ?

    I know practically nothing about either of them, so I can’t say how important material possessions are to them. I’d like to think they value, highly, ‘the life of the mind’, and that that pushes owning flashy houses down their list of priorities a bit.

    I suppose that what irritates them is that they see the aspirationals, having the opportunity to have so much, seemingly only wanting material things.


  8. Revealed preference, Russell – that’s what I’m talking about. If David williamson owns a house on Sydney Harbour rather than one in Campbelltown, I’m willing to bet that it’s because he values living on Sydney Harbour fairly highly.

    I don’t have any problem with people like Clive and David owning whatever they want and living however they want, it’s their propensity to sneer at other people’s aspirations (and their revealed preferences, come to that) that I have a problem with. I was brought up to judge people by what they do, not what they say.


  9. Whereas I of course was brought up not to judge people at all …..

    As usual, revealed preference means nothing without context. Take the example of my mother – she still lives in the family home in City Beach, but we moved there in 1955, when it was a cheapish, way-out sort of place. Now it’s only for millionaires – should that stop her from commenting on the materialism of her (now) neighbours with their new garish mansions and 6 car garages ?

    I will allow you the point about sneering though – a low pleasure we probably all indulge in from time to time.


  10. “Whereas I of course was brought up not to judge people at all

    Well, good for you Russell. Pity Clive and David weren’t brought up that way – fair bit of judging coming from them I think.


  11. You don’t judge other people but you’re defending the right of David and Clive commenting (and looking down) on people who consume beyond what they consider is necessary? Kettle, black, pot?
    Clive Hamilton had a whinge earlier this year about buying a winter coat, it was too bourgeois for his liking. I mean, a winter coat is excessive? The guy is on another planet.
    David Williamson has produced some interesting drama for both the stage and the screen (however, never, ever, watch Emerald City, it is one big ego stroke), but that piece on his apoplexy at the behaviour and conversation topics of Australians on cruise ships was pure tripe.
    This New Left hatred of working class people making good and wanting a bit of la dolce vita is reminiscent of the old class system that the old union movement did so much to tear down. This time though it is diguised behind environmentalism and anti-capitalism rather than simple snobbery and a hierarchical view of society. But it all ammounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? These new snobs think new wealth is bad because new wealth is created by people who have bad taste and don’t understand or appreciate the finer things in life and think quantity beats quality. It burns me up this snobbish attitude I see coming out of cretins like Clive and David.


  12. BG, if I am not wrong, I think what you are getting at with David and Clive is their hypocrisy, not their tendency to judge others per se. After all, Clive’s world view – to which he is perfectly entitled – is entirely based on (his) judgment about what is a good life. But hypocrisy is a tricky one because, as we have discussed previously on this blog, there is arguably little wrong with wishing the world were a certain way but acting self-interestedly within the world that is.


  13. “You don’t judge other people but you’re defending the right of David and Clive commenting (and looking down) on people who consume beyond what they consider is necessary? Kettle, black, pot?”
    That’s called the right to free speech, Brendan, and worth defending.
    Can’t remember if I read about Clive’s coat, but there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the difference between necessity and luxury.
    I thought David Williamson’s article was amusing, but as I commented at the time a writer like Helen Garner would also have found interest and humanity in her subjects.

    I myself enjoy simple snobbery (the U and non-U game) and don’t need to disguise it behind anything. I have unshakeable confidence in the superiority of my own tastes. I’m not rising to Andrew’s bait to defend the 1950s, but it seems to me that sometime during the 70s nouveau riche vulgarity teamed up with aggressive ocker-ism to become our new national style.

    I don’t have a hatred for working class people making good, but I do disdain this trivial, ugly, squandering, stupid culture we’ve developed.


  14. It didn’t seem to me that you were defending their right to say it, but that you were defending what they stand for.
    You dislike the choices of others in choosing nationalistic materialism, and it is fair enough that you haven’t chosen that life, but why can’t you just ignore (it’s called toleration) other’s choices and celebrate your own. Why the snobbery?
    If you don’t participate in popular culture, and aren’t forced to by anyone, what exactly are you complaining about?
    Whinging that more people haven’t made the same choice as you is shallow, and it is such whinging that calls on state funding for the arts, the opera and the ABC because you’re not able to voluntarily convince enough people to like what you like and be willing to pay for it.
    Complain as much as you like, but please don’t also expect the hard working slob’s taxes to pay for choices you approve of and then get all snooty when the great unwashed want the state to pay for drag strips and speedways. Both groups should be paying for their own choices.


  15. “Why the snobbery?” Because, as I wrote, I see people living more trivial, ugly, squandering, and stupid lives. And I want that trend reversed. I want to live amongst people who are informed, discriminating, modest; and striving for more knowledge, more understanding, more creativity … rather than more horsepower, more bling, more excitement.
    Could be I’m just getting old, because I did enjoy the popular culture of earlier times. I think we’re in a destructive cycle and that there’s nothing wrong in pointing it out. Unlike you Brendan, I feel, as part of this community, that we’re all in it together – I don’t need to actually participate in taking drugs and binge drinking to be affected by it or have a right to criticise it.


  16. Go join a circus (I can’t say what I feel without getting pulled by Mr Norton). I feel as much a part of the community as anyone, moreso perhaps than your good self because I don’t look down on my fellow man just because I disagree with his choices. I don’t enjoy most rap or r’n’b or boy bands or big brother or survivor or many elements of popular culture, but I can see the market for it and respect the choices of those who consume it. I don’t get into any existential crisis about civilisation going to the dogs just because Mozart or Miles Davis isn’t played on TripleMMM (or TripleJJJ for that matter), even though I like that music. I stump up the coin and pay for it myself.
    How exactly are you affected by binge drinking or drug taking unless you’ve been involved in a traffic accident with a drunk or ha your stereo stolen by a heroin addict. Is it the alcohol that caused those events, or the individual making the decision behind them? Do you have to make illicit drugs illegal to make the property and assault crimes of the addicted illegal? Or is that sort of behaviour already illegal?
    Maybe you get enjoyment about feeling superior and depressed about the future of human civilisation. That’s your pessimistic perogative I suppose.


  17. “there is arguably little wrong with wishing the world were a certain way but acting self-interestedly within the world that is.”

    I would agree with you there Rajat and plead guilty myself. That’s why, for example, I am one of the horrible tax-avoiding people who has taken out minimal private health insurance in order to avoid the Medicare levy surcharge, something the AI most definitely disapproves of.

    But I still think there is a problem with preachers who exhort people to “do as I say, not as I do”. I’ve never found overt moral superiority a very attractive human quality and I listened to enough sermons when I was growing up to last me a lifetime.

    But I will admit I don’t know enough about Clive Hamilton’s personal lifestyle to know whether he is a total hypocrite – perhaps he really is into the ascetic lifestyle. I’m fairly comfortable with assuming that he lives in a pretty nice (presumably tasteful) house in a pretty good suburb, though.


  18. And Russell, in the end I don’t buy the argument that spending a lot of money on yourself is OK as long as you spend it on tasteful things and high culture but not OK if you are one of those people with more money than taste.


  19. Brendan, glad to know that you “feel as much a part of the community as anyone”, I had the impression you were a fairly reluctant member of it.
    What others do affects me both in the simple sense that I pay taxes to fix up the mess they make (look at hospital emergency wards on any weekend), but also in the ‘social capital’ and ‘trust’ way: for example I wouldn’t feel safe in most parts of this city if I were out after dark, alone. Too many drunks.
    Another way I’m affected is just the way I feel when I’m out and about: I find the ugliness of most public spaces, and architecture, depressing. I made a rare foray into the city yesterday – in the retail epicentre of Perth, the Hay Street Mall, I found that the mall has been paved with depressingly dark grey pavers, there are dozens of metal planter boxes throughout the Mall, all empty, the big clock at London Court is broken … and there were plenty of people hanging about that looked disturbed, dirty. It doesn’t add up to a pleasant feeling (going ‘into town’ gave one much more of a pick-me-up in the 50s and 60s!).

    I don’t regard my own impeccable taste (anything of dubious taste in my house is to be taken as an ironic statement) as a reason to feel superior. A good teacher doesn’t feel superior to his students, but he does want to introduce them to experiences which will change them. Having wider experience will allow them to make more positive choices. I think Williamson is probably decrying the fact that the cashed-up bogans just go on making childish choices because their experiences have been so limited.

    BG – I don’t totally agree – I would rather be surrounded by other people’s tasteful stuff, than other people’s tasteless stuff. Wouldn’t you prefer that there was a larger market for good design, craftsmanship and creativity, than for kitsch rubbish?


  20. Russell – I might prefer people (including myself) to be better than they are in all sorts of ways, but generally this will only happen if they come to the same conclusion themselves. I doubt the capacity of governments to do much to change people, particularly in areas such as cultural tastes and consumption preferences.

    Yes, all children should have access to a decent education and maybe governments should do a bit more to improve the quality of education on offer, particularly for kids whose home environment is deprived, but I’m a lot more uncomfortable about government actions that purport to improve affordability and accessibility of ‘culture’ for lower income people by providing subsidies that end up benefiting primarily well-off people.

    And, you know, I don’t think that prefering opera to Australian Idol actually makes you a better person. Or that wanting to live in a tasteful Victorian terrace in Fitzroy makes you a better person than wanting to live in a McMansion in Caroline Springs (even though I would much prefer the former to the latter). Can’t you see that a statement such as “cashed-up bogans just go on making childish choices” just reeks with self-righteous snobbery?


  21. “the devil made me do it” as Flip Wilson used to say. (It IS Friday afteroon)

    So how do we get governments to lift their game re their uglification projects? Why do we have philistines running Perth City Council – anyone would look at the Hay Street Mall and think “This looks dreadful”. You should see our infamous convention centre! I think environments have an effect on people, and I expect more of the people who create them. BHP has just announced it will build a tower block in the city – from the illustration in the paper I can tell you, Foster’s gherkin it ain’t.

    There’s nothing wrong with people watching anything on TV for entertainment. It’s the amount, and balance with other stuff that matters. We differ in that I do think experiencing the best in our culture is a life-affirming, positive, improving thing to do. I’m not a post-modernist – I don’t rank all cultural experience as equal.


  22. I don’t think I’m a post-modernist either – but while I know what I like and I’m sure that some entertainment/culture/art is ‘worth’ more than others, I’m not so sure of the superiority of my own tastes that I would be confident to foist them on others. While it may be possible to separate good from bad at some absolute level, I still think that an awful lot of taste is in the eye of the beholder, as they say.

    As to Perth architecture, I have no experience of that (living in tasteful Melbourne as I do) – but perhaps people get the City Council they vote for? Unfortunately, democracy being what it is, unless the people with your taste are in the majority, you are probably destined to having to put up with the civic tastes of the less refined. Maybe it’s time for you to move to more civilised environs 🙂


  23. or civilised times …. the 1960s!

    The Perth City Council area is a tiny CBD area, so we don’t have a vote, other than with our feet.

    Never mind about your lack of confidence in your own taste – you’ll become more certain with age.


  24. Russell, Perth may be no architectural gem, but what are you going to do about it? Force the shareholders of BHP to subsidise your favourite architect? That is what you are talking about, really. You may think of BHP as a massive conglomerate with bucketloads of money to spend on your choices, but it is owned directly or indirectly by individual shareholders who have but up their hard earned to finance the company. If you want to influence the decision making of BHP, buy some shares and convince enough other shareholders to turn Perth into some sort of Antipodean Madrid or London. Or, for the coward, you could whinge and moan to the city council to prevent BHP building anything you don’t approve of, which will probably mean BHP don’t build anything at all. No cash, no conviction.
    London may have some fine architecture, but it also has its fair share of monstrosities. The Barbican is one of the ugliest examples of concrete brutalism on the planet, and that was built by the state, inspired by the totalitarian architecture of the Soviet Union. Man, that building is ugly, and it sits right down the road from your Gherkin and St Pauls.
    If you are so concerned about the cultural tastes of your fellow man, then you should donate to organisations that are doing something to bring ‘high’ culture to the masses. And I don’t mean lobby your MP to spend some of other people’s taxes on your behalf.


  25. “Russell, Perth may be no architectural gem, but what are you going to do about it?” I’m going to criticise it Brendan – I say it’s tasteless and soul destroying. I’m going to point to examples of better architecture, and be called an elitist snob for doing so.
    I don’t have money to buy BHP shares, so I’ll try to shame the management instead. When they build a dominating building in a city they have a responsibility to the community to make it a good one. That building will contribute to people’s experience – both as a workplace and as a feature of the environment – and it can be a good contribution or a bad one. Which would you prefer?

    I’m encouraged that you criticise the Barbican – that’s one way progress is made: distinguishing rubbish from quality.

    I’ll stop before I start channeling Prince Charles.


  26. Wrong, Russell. BHP’s only responsibility is to its shareholders and other companies, people it has made legal obligations to. Only in serving their owner’s best interests does BHP have any legitimacy. If that responsibility coincides with benefits for others, then so be it. The law of unintended consequences works both ways.
    City planning is a crock. Best let people build what ever they want, wherever they want and let revealed preference show what is good architecture and which is bad by the process of constant destruction and renewal. No one tells artists what they can and can’t paint, nor where they can paint it. However, the market in art gives clear indication which art is more aesthetically pleasing, and bad art remains unsold and undisplayed. If we applied your ideas to art, an artist would have to first apply for a license to paint and then have what he is painting approved before his given access to a canvas and paint, then have it checked while they are painting that the artist is following the plan he submitted. Would this produce great art?


  27. Brendan, have you heard the phrases “corporate social responsibility” or “triple bottom line reporting” – I think you’ll even find them in the annual reports of many companies. BHP says that they are successful when “communities in which we operate value our citizenship”. BHP does have obligations other than its legal ones. So do you.

    “No one tells artists what they can and can’t paint, nor where they can paint it.” Yes they do. They can’t paint just anywhere or it will be called graffiti, and be an offence. I think your approach to city planning (none) would likely result in an ugly environment.


  28. Russell, you couldn’t be more wrong on BHP’s responsibilities if you tried. You are confusing marketing with intent. BHP exists solely to pursue the charter of it’s incorporation, which is to pursue the exploration, extraction and processing of minerals for sale. Any activity they engage in has this as its motivation, the company does not exist to build attractive buildings in the CBD, nor to build communities. It coordinates activities of individuals to pursue mining. In doing this, it may happen to do other things which people value, like providing employment, like providing facilities for workers and their families in order to attract and keep good workers, like building attractive office towers to improve prestige and reputation (and increase share value), all done in order to pursue MINING FOR PROFIT.
    Don’t be obtuse about confusing graffiti, a violation of property rights issue, with my point about centrally planned art. Do you, or do you not think that regulating art would produce good or bad results for art? It has been tried in authoritarian nations in Europe and Asia, and to a lesser extent in Perth with all those ugly bronze kangaroos all over the place. Art for the people, perhaps?
    Sure, unregulated development would see some disasters get built, but, over time, revealed preferences would eliminate mistakes and value successes. Look at the attempts at building a planned city, you get places like Canberra, a giant series of roundabouts with empty National Buldings in the middle of them. But I suppose if it were only you who planned Canberra, it would have been better, hey?


  29. “over time, revealed preferences would eliminate mistakes and value successes” or produce jerry-built strip developments featuring porn shops and tattoo parlours.

    I don’t know anyone in Canberra, but my impression is that most people who live there appreciate it’s advantages. (Can anyone explain the point in living in Australia, if you can’t have a swim in the sea every day?)

    “BHP exists solely to pursue the charter of it’s incorporation” – Brendan, you’re very keen on considering everyone as a unique responsible human being. Will you explain how being part of BHP exempts any individual from their moral responsibilities? It doesn’t. And neither does it exempt them from other responsibilities.

    Brendan I think you’re even more cynical about people than I am. When I hear that BHP is really trying and trying and trying to accomodate aboriginals into its workforce, even though I know that there would be a public relations advantage in that, I’m inclined to believe that there are people, senior and otherwise in that company, that are doing it out of a genuine concern to do something for those people – whether it adds up to a ‘profit’ for BHP or not. Perhaps they think, as I do, that it’s absolutely legitimate to use BHPs resources to do some good for people. That in fact they had a kind of duty to do it.

    It would be nice if friends of BHP’s chairman or CEO would say to them, “Saw a picture of your new building planned for Perth – it’s rubbish” and that that would spur said Chairman to think “yes, it’s true – we can do better than that”.


  30. Russell, if BHP’s executives where misappropriating shareholders money to pursue their own agenda, charitable or otherwise, it would be considered fraud. If BHP has a programme to train workers of any ethnic background, then BHP are getting their labour in exchange for pay, and if they are making a song and dance about employing aboriginals, then they are getting some good PR, which raise the profile of their company and hopefully increases the value of their shares to the benefit of their stockholders. They would not train anyone unless they expected to get their labour. Everyone benefits.
    I don’t really understand what you mean by moral responsibilities. My only moral responsibility is to not do something that would harm other people. I am not responsible for anyone else’s welfare except my own and my family’s. I may well make decisions that benefit others, but that is because I would prefer to see a better outcome. This in no way makes it my responsibility. It also doesn’t make me cynical. A cynic is someone who mistrusts the motives of others. I don’t mistrust the motives of others, in fact I try trust them implicitly unless I have a real reason and evidence to think otherwise. I think good of my neighbour, I believe their actions are driven by mostly rational self-interest and honesty. Any other belief would mean that I would unable to pursue my own ends efficiently in a society that demands trust between complete strangers to cooperatively assist each other. The beauty of it all, is that most people aren’t even aware that they are helping others achieve their own ends, ends that they might even disagree with, but are valued by others, it is done because they at the same time are pursuing their own ends. That is what society is.
    I really don’t know what you think of me, Russell, but you seem determined to paint libertarians as being selfish, cold hearted cynics, whereas in reality, all we want is to create an environment in which people can pursue their own goals and objectives without interference, respecting other’s own right to do the same, where all cooperative activities are voluntarily entered into. The net result will be positive for everyone.


  31. Brendan, you are a selfish, cold hearted cynic (from troppo:)

    I have no time for snobs that look down on shelf stackers and garbage collectors, not do I have time for middle class socialists living in McMansions blaming society for the unemployability of the non-working class. Someone who slaves at 2 or 3 jobs to improve their lot in life have more dignity than both of them, and a bucket load more than those that would be kept by the state and can’t see past their own needs and rights.


  32. Maybe not cold hearted, but definitely cynical – not toward working people, but toward “middle class socialists”. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think being a cynic is any bad thing (i.e. it’s not a criticism). I do think you have some cynical attitudes to bits of the community though, judging by that quote.


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