“What About Your Friends?: The Challenge of Keeping Besties in the Age of Social Media”


Picture this….

The year is 1992. It’s a sizzling hot summer day in Ottawa; the kind that makes you wanna hop on your bike and head down to the local pool to go swimming with your friends and eat Freezies all day. In a non- air-conditioned  apartment on Fifth Avenue, a group of seventeen-year-old girls are lounging about in the living room in tank tops and Daisy Dukes giving themselves French manicures in front of a large fan gossiping about the latest break-up in their circle and debating the merits of a friendly U.S presidential hopeful from Arkansas that got lots of buzz lately. In the background, the dulcet tones of R&B girl group sensation, TLC, comes drifting through a pair of large Sony speakers. The song playing is “ What About Your Friends?“…

” What about your friends? Will they stand their ground? Will they let you down, again? What about your friends? Are they gonna be low down? Will they ever be around or will they turn their backs on you?”

The hook is a catchy one… and within a minute or two …all five girls are singing along and exchanging knowing glances about the pitfalls of female friendship their favourite Atlanta trio is referring to.  Yes, …female. I could write chapter and verse on the male side of the bff equation. But, for the purposes of brevity I’m limiting this discussion to that ‘sister from another mister‘ or the beautiful besties that bring something special to your world. If someone had asked any of the five girls at that moment how they felt about each other, their response would have reflected the closeness of the bond they share. Why?Because, even though  all of them had [by that time] already been hurt or rejected by a trusted gal pal , they remained open and trusting of each other. How do I know this? I was one of them and I’m still besties with one of them, too.

Suffice it to say…there are many reasons a friendship can fail or succeed. That was true in 1992 and is still true today. What’s changed is the criteria people use to gauge how mediocre or marvelous their friends are and how social media is re-shaping our respective lists of does and don’ts. Social media has not only transformed our traditional notion of friendship, it has also shifted what we value in these close relationships and  [linguistically-speaking] upended the terminology used to communicate that . While I recognize that the concept of sisterhood explored here is by no means universal, research indicates there is quite a bit cross-cultural consensus around this issue. According to what I’ve seen and read, women form the strongest bonds with women they can trust, rely on, feel close to and understood by. In other words, the basic metrics for assessing the quality of the relationship you have with your best friend are: trust, reliability, intimacy and acceptance. Don’t believe me? Check out what Alex Lickerman, M.D wrote about kenzokuthe Japanese concept of friendship and you’ll see there’s very little difference between the love and trust exchanged between besties the world over. However, there is a growing chasm between what certain aspects of friendship once meant to us and their significance within the current social media context.

I. Trust

Last February, a British poll found that almost half of the Britons surveyed preferred to keep in touch with friends virtually, rather than in person. The survey also found that 79% of those polled maintain friendships that would “wither” without the help of social media. In other words, these individuals retain connections to human beings that wouldn’t survive offline. Since women still make-up the lion’s share of social media users, you can be sure there’s a significant amount of them depending on the likes of Facebook and Instagram to massage their female friendships. Needless to say, I find these figures more than a little disturbing. The fact that these women feel the connections they have invested in would “wither” without some form technological oxygen shows how little trust they actually have in the people they are connected to. Of course, that doesn’t apply to long distance friendships. It’s not like you can hit Starbucks together for a chat every other week if one lives in Manchester and the other in Mumbai. But, if your bestie lives within 30 minutes of you and she consistently cancels on you for a quick bite around the corner, but always seems to find time to rate Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrity Mean Tweets: how much trust can one put in such a relationship?

II. Reliabilityfriendsrachelmonicaphoebe

On May 6th, 2004, NBC aired the final episode of Friends. For girls like me, it was the end of an era. My first year at Carleton, I watched the show  religiously every Monday at Roosters along with God only knows how many other girls and guys. Yeah, you heard me : GUYS. Laugh if you will, but they loved it …(!) ; we all did. I rarely missed out on watching the antics of Rachel, Chandler, Ross, Joey, Monica and Phoebe. Why? Because I liked how they could rely on each other, especially the girls. The show’s theme song  “I’ll Be There For You” only served to reiterate that fact. Fast forward to 2016 and we find ourselves faced with a very different proposition…, least most Gen X-ers do. Those of us who were in school or just graduating back in 2004 related easily to the sisterhood Rachel, Monica and Phoebe shared. It’s one based on marathon phone conversations about crappy bosses and boyfriends and years [not hours, not days] years…spent in each other’s company through good times and bad. I’ve both supported my besties in their time of need and thanked God they exist when I needed them most. As a result, I have an exact idea of who I can count on when the chips are down and the security that affords me is worth its weight in gold. Not all girls are as lucky, though. Blogger Lindsay Williams wasn’t. Last year, she discovered the hard way that “lasting friendships are built on far more than a Facebook history. They’re forged in the fire of life’s peaks and valleys“. Determined to figure out where she went wrong, she decided to examine the reasons why she was so unsuccessful at winning and keeping friends in 2015.  Her assessment revealed “six areas where social media is wreaking havoc on our friendships.” Not surprisingly, intimacy topped her list.

III. Intimacy

Intimacy…is one those  Oprahfied terms I grew up hearing that [to this day] still seems to make people incredibly uncomfortable,especially married folk. Yet, it remains the base of any true bestie bond. My own interpretation of the term is rather raw… and not likely to show up in the latest edition of Psychology Today . My definition of intimacy is… when you feel close enough to let your best friend hold your hair back while you barf in the Cancun hotel bathroom you’re both sharing because you got yourself ‘white girl wasted‘ your first night of Spring Break. It also includes spending the next hour pathetically reminding her how A-M-A-Z-I-N-G she is for turning down more tequila, taking you home and [above all], making the driver pull over so she could buy you  ginger ale for tomorrow’s killer hangover. Is this a true story? Not exactly. However, the image of mutual trust and bonding it conveys is one most women my age can relate to.  But, what happens when the closeness you thought you shared with someone…is [more or less] an illusion? Social media is known to create a false sense of intimacy. In other words, it makes you feel like you know people better than you actually do. As Lindsey Williams remarked, “liking someone’s photos on Instagram does not a friendship make.”The fact of the matter is you can only really get to know someone by spending time with them and being part of their lives; not just observing it through a screen.

IV. AcceptanceBFF

So, what does it mean to be ‘accepted’ by your bestie? For me, it means you feel free to be who you are and share that with them …win, lose or draw. When you feel accepted by your best friend you feel supported and understood. You feel like whatever makes you unique in this world is respected and valued. Unfortunately, the shame culture that is thriving on social media militates against such an outcome. Intimacy and acceptance are based on emotional safety or a calculated emotional risk, if you will. The idea of not being scared to show who you truly are is one that goes to the heart of any burgeoning or seasoned friendship or sisterhood. Ironically, social media actually hinders that kind of sharing by punishing those who dare to air their dirty laundry online and rewarding those who present the most blemish-free image of themselves literally and figuratively. Members of the ‘community’ carefully scrutinize all shows of human frailty and hand down their verdict via a battery of likes, ratings and positive or negative feedback. The end result? Virtual exchanges are conducted in a sterile space where no real emotional spillage can take place and where everyone hides behind what photographer Tanja Hollander referred to as the “staged façade“of their lives.

Social media can impact female friendships negatively when it comes to markers such as trust, reliability, intimacy and acceptance. But, the reality is that it’s here to stay, so users must develop better ways of navigating the inevitable pitfalls of managing one’s online friendships or “social capital”. Writer Scott Alexander once famously noted “all good is hard”. If you look at your closest human relationships through that lense, than it becomes evident that anything worthwhile is worth investing the appropriate time and energy in. The bottom line is there are no shortcuts and if you truly value your besties… and are grateful for all they do and bring to your life… you’ll do what it takes to prove that to them. That means doing stuff like taking em’ out for some spicy Mexican and margaritas on their birthday instead of dramatically promising to do so beneath the bday Minions vid you posted on their Wall.  At the end of the day, though…you’re the only one who can decide whether they deserve your reciprocity or not. For your sake and theirs…here’s hoping they do.

Do you find it hard to keep your besties close in the age of social media? How valuable are your friendships to you? Please let me know!




2 thoughts on ““What About Your Friends?: The Challenge of Keeping Besties in the Age of Social Media”

  1. It is amazing how we all let our daily lives consume us. That it is easier to send a text to connect with someone or just look at their social media to see what is going on in their life. There has been multiple times I have been sitting with my girlfriends and I realize everyone single one of us is surfing some sort of social media. Can we not hold a conversation long enough with each other to keep it engaging so we don’t feel the need to grab those devices? I will heading to New York in a few weeks for a week of vacation. Or what I call a vacation because I won’t actually be at work, but my emails will still be coming to me. I have decided I am not going to live through my phone while I am there. I am actually going to live the week and make sure I only post and scroll through my social media once a day and not check my work emails at all. For someone in the Social Media profession that is quite the accomplishment. I think everyone should try and have just one hour a day of “unplugged” personal time, whether it be reading a book, hitting the beach, going to the gym, or just laying on the couch and shutting off their brains.

    Thank you for posting this. Every once in awhile I need some reminders that we are actually social creatures not social media creatures 🙂

  2. Pingback: “Where is the Love?: Welcome to the New Millennium’s Marital Matrix” – Algonquin College Social Media Certificate Program

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