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.