Friendship in the Social Media Age

Friends will disappoint you. No relationship is perfect and people change over time, but in the age of social media, the odds of derailing a friendship are far greater. You see your friends in a light you never once glimpsed prior to Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and the like. Who is hanging out with whom and not inviting you; who is visiting your city and not reaching out; who is doing something you recently did, but not asking for input? The list goes on.

Friendships fundamentally change after age 30. With social media, they may change even earlier. Some friendships may never even form because of social media. The platforms that were originally designed to connect us all possess a distinct ability to drive us apart. Below are some of the more common reasons why friendships change due to social media, and what should (or should not) be done about it.

Online Activity Is Inescapable.

Whether it’s location check-ins, posts, stories, or what your friends have “liked”, social media activity is largely transparent. Most people do not use the most restrictive privacy settings, giving anyone that’s connected almost a full view of what they are doing, when they are doing it, and with whom. If you are excluded, it inevitably creates tension. There’s no reason to hide it – seeing your friends having (or at least appearing to have) fun without you hurts. Of course, you have to tread cautiously, for there is often more to the story. For example, you may see someone “check in” at a restaurant you’ve discussed and you may feel slighted, but you will feel worse if call them out only to discover they were meeting family (and not replacing you with other friends).

Although at other times your anger or irritation may be justified. There have been multiple occasions when I’ve wondered why someone couldn’t text me back, but somehow was able to “like” 10 pictures on Instagram in the past 5 minutes. Or when someone tells you why they couldn’t do something, but then their social media behavior tells a different story (“sorry, I can’t make it, I’m sick”, meanwhile, someone posts a picture of your “friend” with a drink in their hand at another event). The full and sometimes brutally transparent nature of social media can cause friction, frustration, and fallouts. It can teach you how to recognize friends and identify assholes.

Rife With Unintended Consequences.

And unintended consequences abound on social media. You post a picture of one friend, exclaiming in pure ecstasy how enjoyable a time you’re both having, and suddenly your other friend who couldn’t make the trip sulks live on social media for the world to witness. Perhaps it’s passive aggressiveness, maybe it’s even direct, but one effect is certain – those excluded will feel some degree of pain, even though it wasn’t purposeful or intended. You have no idea how someone will perceive your posts or check-ins or likes. It is impossible to be self-aware of all the forces at play in the lives of our friends. Even with the best of intentions it’s possible to leave others hurt or ostracized.

Prior to social media, the big excluder in school was birthday parties. If you had a party in the classroom, you were forced to include everyone. But if you organized something outside, you were not compelled to send little Johnny an invitation. You may not have meant anything by it – maybe you never spoke to little Johnny – but if he was only a handful of students not included, it would hurt. At least back then you could make efforts to keep an exclusive party under wraps. Now with social media, everyone learns everything, often in real-time.

The potential for unintended consequences should not chill speech on social media, but it definitely mandates more thoughtful behavior, if you care about others of course. So if you were unable to make a good friend’s wedding because you were sick, you might not want to post pictures of yourself imbibing and loving life at a different event the very next day. It depends on the type of person you want to be and your willingness to adapt to an online environment that can impact others in unforeseen ways.

Friends of Friends Post Too.

Guess what? Even when you don’t post something, other people in your group might. Mutual friends often follow the same people. So if you’re hiding the fact you’re in New York City for a “quick trip”, but the people you choose to see broadcast it on Instagram, be prepared to irritate those you’re hiding from. But maybe that’s what you’re trying to do? There is nothing worse than a passive aggressive social media dramatist.

Again, it goes back to being thoughtful and aware. Ten years ago nobody had to worry about enjoying activities with some friends and not others. In today’s brave new world, who you associate yourself with will likely be seen by at least some people you know, assuming you have stereotypical millennial or Gen Z friends. We capture everything on our phones.

Additional Research Is Tempting.

With everything being captured and posted online, it is easy to succumb to the black hole of social media. The various ways to look people up and investigate their online presence can suck in even the most indifferent among us. Let me tell you – it’s not worth it. Easier said than done, yes, but the comparisons and measurements you will draw against that old flame, friend, or foe are simply unhealthy. Some may use it for motivation, but if you’re unable to find contentment within yourself, you may need to reexamine a few things internally. The way people portray themselves online is similar to what magazines have been doing with airbrushing for decades – it’s only natural for people to “filter” for their most flattering and glossed over portrayals.

The best way to maintain, revive, or start friendships is interpersonal interaction, not online sleuthing. It is more authentic and organic. Try having a real conversation.

Showboaters Suck.

Speaking of authenticity, social media was almost made solely for showboating. Posting about life events is one thing, hammering your followers with excessive pictures of you living the good life is another. And we saw from the previous 20 posts how cute your kid is.

The quickest way to annoy and ostracize your friends is by being a social media showboater. We get it – sometimes life is going well and you want to sing from the mountaintops. You might think it’s common sense not to overdo it, but some people cannot help themselves. It’s as if all of the extra attention is like a drug that constantly needs injecting in order to convince themselves that they’re doing well. If you need incessant affirmation and attention from others, you’re probably not doing as well as you think.

Conclusion.

While these are some of the primary social media forces that impact friendships, there are many others too. With real-time stories, whether on Snapchat or Instagram, we now have a constant view into some of the most intimate moments of peoples’ lives. Russell Wilson (not my personal friend) even posted recently from his bed with Ciara (his wife) in it, announcing his new contract with the Seattle Seahawks. Prior to the advent of social media stories, that never would have happened.

Friends, celebrities, and even random strangers now showcase their lives to the masses without too much concern for privacy or unintended consequences. The ever-expanding nature of these platforms requires more thoughtful behavior that empowers us – the users – to define how we choose to engage our friends and the online world. Otherwise, we risk allowing social media to define us and potentially destroy our friendships in the process.

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