At 10.53pm on Christmas Day, Simone Back posted her last status update on Facebook. It read: "Took all my pills be dead soon so bye bye every one." One of her friends responded: "She ODs all the time and she lies." Another chimed in: "She has a choice and taking pills over a relationship is not a good enough reason." Others argued among themselves about whether it was a bluff.
Of the 1,048 people listed on Facebook as a friend of Back, not one checked up on her. She died at 5.05pm on Boxing Day. Shortly after, her mother wrote this: "My daughter Simone passed away today so please leave her alone now."
Among the most miserable, morale-sapping aspects of this story is its lack of surprise. You've come across these elements before: a worn-down individual; an inarticulate plea for help, and a crowd of internet associates who don't lift a finger, apart from to type withering comments. The indifference to Back's fatal overdose belongs in the same file as those semi-regular tragedies of children bullied to death on social-networking websites – and even the one about the Hertfordshire teenager who announced her birthday party on Facebook, and received 21,000 RSVPs. Running through those vignettes is a common question: what's an online friendship worth? Or, put another way, how is it possible to rack up more than 1,000 friends on a website, and for none of them to step in when you try to kill yourself?
When Facebook and other online social networks crop up in public debate, it is usually on issues of online privacy, or how they might aid political activism. The question of how they are reconfiguring our relationships is less often asked. Yet Facebook is now the most visited website in America; it has more than 500 million users who between them upload 2.7m photos and more than 10m comments to its pages every 20 minutes (even if most of them read: "Lol!"). Whatever congregation is meeting on that website – with its dark-blue heading and its collection of news, photos and links to YouTube – it's worth studying.
Defenders of friendship, Facebook-style, point to those figures and argue that more must mean better. Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent argues that new websites and technology have allowed users to keep in closer contact with their loved ones, however far away. She tells a good story about a Brazilian couple in Italy who once a week use a webcam to have a virtual dinner party with their relatives in Sao Paulo. Then there's John Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness, who points out that Facebook, Skype and plain old email are a boon to severely disabled and housebound people who might otherwise go without social contact. As he says, "Something – no matter how little – has got to be better than nothing."
No doubt. But what these anecdotes rightly celebrate is that the internet has made communication – from email through to video-conferencing – almost free. What they leave out is how that communication is structured by $50bn businesses such as Facebook.
Anyone who has ever had a Facebook page will know what I mean. On signing up, you are asked to fill in a questionnaire. Under date of birth you are asked to fill in your favourite quotation (because obviously everyone has one of those); then what you are looking for: friendship; dating; a relationship; networking? Those are the four states of socialising in Facebook world. "Insurrectionary chat" isn't available; neither, strangely, is "mutual solipsism". In the good old days you were at least offered "random play", which had the merit of sounding at once pervy and vaguely situationist.
Such tick-box definitions are a form of "self-reduction", according to Jaron Lanier. In his recent book You are Not a Gadget, the computer scientist points out that this "semi-automated self-presentation" (not to mention those "suggested friends" and "who to follow" prompts on Facebook and Twitter) is borne of the binary approach of software engineering, rather than the ambiguities of human interaction. Read that, then recall how, when Time made Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg its Person of the Year for 2010, it noted: "He approaches conversation as a way of exchanging data as rapidly and efficiently as possible, rather than as a recreational activity."
But it isn't just Zuckerberg who lost the ability to see conversation as a form of recreation. Others do it too, whenever they self-consciously refer to the impermanence of relationships by talking about new best friends, or ickify the ancient ideal of close male friendships with the term bromance. Or when they post birthday greetings – "have a good one!" – on the Facebook wall of someone they haven't spoken to in five years. If you're pressured at work and at home, starved of time and running to catch up, your friendships (at least outside your close circle of loved ones) will naturally become more breathless and shallow. All Facebook and Twitter do, with their short, sharp updates on what you're thinking Right Now, is exacerbate that trend.
Let me end by comparing two visions of friendship. Here is Theodore Zeldin, historian of emotions. Friendship, he told me, "is an exchanging of self-revelation; when one explains to others what one feels very deeply". With time and trust and talk, "you make yourself vulnerable to another".
Then there is this research from 2009 by Jane Lewis and Anne West at the LSE on how London undergraduates use Facebook. One respondent tells them "a couple of them clicks, y'know, and a nice little message and . . . things are kept ticking along." I suspect we all agree which of those versions is more attractive.
by Aditya Chakrabortty