Friday, July 24, 2009

Of Friends and "Friends"

Aristotle wrote that friendship is a special relation that has ethical dimensions. Similarly, contemporary thinkers like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Sara Ruddick have stressed that the relationship between friends comes with certain obligations to the befriended. If you are late for an important appointment and clock eyes with a stranger whose car has broken down on the side of a little traveled road in nasty weather with no cell phone, you might feel bad and wish you had time to stop as you drive by. But if it was a friend you see -- and who sees you--, you better pull over. Being a friend means caring about the other for the other's sake. Friendship means something.

But what does it mean to be a Facebook friend? Surely, that's a different sort of relationship, but what comes with it? The bar is certainly lower, but is there an ethical dimension there at all? What degree of care and consideration do you owe your Facebook friends?

Do other relations play a part? For example, I happily agree to be Facebook friends with former students who request it. But at the same time I avoid initiating the connection myself because it seems untoward. Our relationship during their time in college was one of unbalanced power and it seems awkward to approach them in this way after the fact, while it feels joyful when they approach me. I'd have no problem inviting them over for dinner (well, ok, some former students...), but this seems different. Is it?