On language and the Facebook friend

Has Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg constructed the categories of our social lives?

by Sam Blake

The English language once had a problem. Admittedly, the English language isnâÄôt perfect. No natural language is. However, itâÄôs simply ridiculous that spelling out the phrase âÄúpotato, potatoâÄù causes it to no longer have its intended meaning. Actually, wait. The English language still has that problem. Let me try that again. The English language once had a problem. Admittedly, it isnâÄôt perfect. No natural language is. But one of the issues English (and indeed most any language) faces is the issue of gaps in meaning between words. Consider, for example, âÄúyellowâÄù and âÄúgreen.âÄù Both are colors, and both reside in the same general region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Once you are comfortable with the concepts of âÄúyellowâÄù and âÄúgreen,âÄù it is not much of a leap to consider the concept that lies halfway between them. However, this color does not have a unique word for it; technically, such words exist, but most are more foods than colors (âÄúchartreuse,âÄù âÄúpear,âÄù âÄúolive,âÄù etc.) Since these words are not commonly used as colors, most people would probably just call such a color âÄúyellow-green,âÄù or âÄúgreenish-yellowâÄù or something of that ilk. As far as speaking comprehensible English is concerned, this is a fine solution. But like everything else, itâÄôs not that simple. In the case of colors, having a precise set of words for every possible color concept is not all that critical because, letâÄôs be honest, colors are not that important (sorry, art students.) Besides, even if you are a chromaphile, there are well-established, mathematically precise ways of enumerating particular colors, so even if itâÄôs not technically part of the English language, we still have a system. But lots of concepts donâÄôt have nice, neat mathematical equivalents: Emotions, desires and social relationships generally canâÄôt be defined with formulas, and so we need words. This is the reason language exists, after all: to communicate concepts we canâÄôt communicate otherwise. Let us consider another example: When you first meet someone, they become an âÄúacquaintance.âÄù âÄúAcquaintanceâÄù is a nice word because itâÄôs very precise, and its definition is more or less obvious. Basically every person that you have ever met can be described as an acquaintance, right? Sure, thatâÄôs technically accurate, but calling someone an acquaintance strongly connotes that they are no more than an acquaintance. Social correctness demands that we refer to an acquaintance by the strongest possible word. You donâÄôt call your wife your âÄúgirlfriend,âÄù you donâÄôt call your girlfriend your âÄúfriendâÄù and you donâÄôt call your friend your âÄúacquaintance.âÄù As with most social constructs, this inevitably leads to confusion and irritation because two people might have very disparate definitions of these relationships. Call someone an âÄúacquaintanceâÄù who thinks of you as a âÄúfriendâÄù and it is pretty much guaranteed that that someone is going to feel hurt. Of course, if youâÄôre a misanthrope, this doesnâÄôt matter all that much, but this is a meaningful problem for most people. Enter the Internet. As usual, the Internet brings the general betterment of our society and improves the lives of all parties involved. Since weâÄôre talking about social relationships, we must of course turn to that most socially productive of Internets, Facebook. With the rising usage of Facebook, of course, comes the wonderful concept of the Facebook friend. The Facebook friend is not a particularly new concept, but it is an increasingly pervasive one. New data from the marketing research firm comScore shows that Facebook is getting ever more face time from its users. According to their data, in December 2009, the average Facebook user visited the site 27.4 times per month, 64 percent more often than in December 2008. Also, according to FacebookâÄôs officially published statistics, the average active user uses the site for nearly an hour every day. Given that college students are notorious Facebook users, itâÄôs fair to say that the numbers for the average student are even higher than these. In any case, we are more exposed to our Facebook friends than ever. But what exactly is a Facebook friend? If youâÄôve been paying attention and didnâÄôt just skip ahead to this paragraph, youâÄôve probably already guessed. A Facebook friend is one of several hundred people whom (you guessed it) you have befriended on Facebook, whether of FacebookâÄôs suggestion or of your ever less-important own volition. The concept of the Facebook friend allows us to linguistically and socially bridge the gap between the concepts of the acquaintance and the friend. Additionally, the Facebook friend has the very useful property of being rigidly defined, unlike most social concepts. Not sure if you consider someone your friend but want to avoid hurting their feelings? As long as that person is your Facebook friend, you possess a well-defined common ground on which you can claim a basis for your relationship. Logically, the form of the Facebook friend can extend to such concepts as the Facebook âÄúIn a relationship,âÄù the Facebook âÄúMarriedâÄù and so on and so forth. The stringently-defined relationships that Facebook enforces are much more socially useful than the more old-fashioned concepts, since these relationships are expressly labeled, conveniently unambiguous and often publically available. Of course, some people might argue that the concept of the Facebook friend cheapens the concept of actual friendship, but itâÄôs a small price to pay for clarity in language, no? Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected].