by Danny Meadows-Klue
Online communities, social networks and social media have created new ways for us to connect, but in a world where you can have 500 friends on Facebook, does our language fail us? ‘Friends’ and ‘acquaintances’ are phrases anchored in a world before the digital networked society.
Friendship implies intimacy, ‘close friends’ imply an inner circle and ‘acquaintances’ suggests a one-size-fits-all barrier: people you’ve met but don’t really connect with. The meanings are important because each word conveys a set of expectations for both the person being described and the person describing.
But those meanings are anchored in a world where contact is limited, and distance or time decay relationships that are not supported. Twenty years ago annual festivals like Christmas or birthdays provided that moment of reconnection, there were Christmas card lists people could ‘fall off’, and the challenge of changing address could inadvertently become a breaking point in those fragile social networks.
The internet changed the rules. First through email, then online address books, then messenger and personal home pages, it created a structure where relationships could be maintained regardless of distance, time and frequency of contact. This ‘strength of weak ties’ is one of the most powerful sea-changes in society enabled by the internet, and in today’s world of blogs, social networks and social media, the models is accelerating and touching more and more of us.
And that’s why we need new language. In the black and white world of ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances’ friendship was a binary on/off function. In the digital networked society, it’s a spectrum of strengths as people drift towards the core or periphery of each other’s lives. School friends reconnected with after 20 years are no longer the exception, maintaining ties with relatives on the other side of the planet should not feel unusual, having bonds with people in social networks who are effectively anonymous or pseudonymous is hardly unusual, and collecting connections with people as you travel through life should feel comfortable.
Language lets us down. We need a new vocabulary that can describe the complex, richer structures of relationships enabled through the internet. We need words and meanings that describe new types of transience in relationships and new types of communities. We need language that can convey the intensity of connections in a chat forum, the following of people whose blogs we share, the sense of preparedness to reconnect with those we rarely contact, the feelings we have about letting go of people who were once in our inner circle, and language to describe the people we are just discovering. Social structures are evolving faster than the language that describes them. When language fails to convey meaning, the scope for misunderstanding grows. As online social networks cement themselves in the cultural mainstream we need language that can do the same.