How Real Are Facebook Friendships?

An artist set out to find the answer—by tracking down and photographing every one of her social-media connections.

Editor of the New York Times Book Review Pamela Paul’s recent column “How to Be Liked By Everyone Online” describes how social media “has upended social and psychological norms” by changing some words to their opposite, or at least giving them a very different gist than they initially had. With Facebook, "to friend" has become a verb, and yet to do so, in the social-media sense, is a fairly passive act, Paul said. In real life, when a friendship ruptures, it’s a major event. But just as it’s easy to start a Facebook relationship, it’s virtually effort-free to end one. The personal investment on either side of “unfriending” somebody is infinitely lower than offline. “The whole concept of what it is to make a friend has shifted,” she explained.

For the 71 percent of Internet users now on Facebook, the word “friend” includes much more tenuous associations—old classmates, colleagues, one-night stands, in some cases, people who might otherwise be complete strangers.

Facebook places every type of social connection into a single “friend” basket. But relationship categories can serve an important function: An acquaintance versus a true friend, for example, signals different levels of trust and expectations. As 70 percent of Facebook users are on the site daily, sociologists and psychologists are examining the link between Facebook use and changes in relationship strength. Facebook may simply prolong superficial connections that would have naturally dissipated otherwise.

For the past four years, photographer Tanja Hollander has been fascinated with the definition of friendship in the modern age. As Hollander tells it, on New Year’s Eve 2010, she found herself in her Auburn, Maine kitchen, simultaneously writing a letter in pencil to a friend deployed in Afghanistan, and on Facebook messaging a friend working on a film in Jakarta. Hollander was struck by the dichotomy. While the letter had a “tangibility and physicality that made it seem more genuine and real,” Facebook gave her an immediate and personal back-and-forth with a friend more than 9,000 miles away— an exchange she believes never would never have happened without social media. As an artist, she was profoundly impacted by the analog and digital experiences together, shared with two friends (who don’t know each other). She describes how, over the first few months of 2011, she analyzed her Facebook use and the “friends” she had accumulated. “I found some of my Facebook friends [who] I’d never met and then a few I wasn’t speaking to in real life,” Hollander said. “There were ex-lovers with new partners, ex-partners of good friends, art dealers, curators, people from high school I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. And I asked myself, I communicate with them, but am I really friends with all of them?” So, she decided to “use the only tools [she] know[s]”—a film camera and a tripod—and set out to visit all 626 of her Facebook “friends” at their homes to take formal portraits of them.

Thus far, Hollander has crowd-sourced $50,000 for her project— titled “Are You Really My Friend?”— which is scheduled to open at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in March 2017. She’s traveled to 43 states, 5 countries, and roughly 150 towns or cities, averaging two weeks away from home per month, and says her personal documentary on friendship is as much about our newly “networked lives” as it is about the physical places people call home.

By Hollander’s estimates, 95 percent of her Facebook friends have welcomed her into their homes and sat for a portrait, with 74 percent offering her a meal or a place to stay for the night—which she admits felt strange or slightly invasive at the beginning, especially for those “friends” she had never met in real life. Hollander found that people are still extremely proud of where they live, wanting to show her their favorite museums, restaurants, and parks—the physical places that embody an identity.

In Paris, Hollander stayed with two Facebook friends, one an old classmate from Hampshire college, the poet and hip-hop artist Mike Ladd, whom she hadn’t seen for a decade, since a mutual friend’s wedding in Calcutta. She met Ladd’s wife and children, Martin and Maya. To communicate with Hollander over the course of her stay, the older boy translated for his little sister, who understood English but could only respond in French.

Mike, Fanny, Martin, and Maya Ladd (Tanja Hollander)

Early in her travels, Hollander was surprised when a professional contact, Amy Munger, a designer in Houston, Texas, who had used some of Hollander’s earlier photographs in several of her clients’ spaces, responded to her message about the project by inviting Hollander to stay in her home for the weekend.  When Hollander arrived, Munger had to leave for an appointment, but she gave Hollander a set of keys and told her “to make herself at home.” Munger brought Hollander to a traditional Texas rodeo, and introduced Hollander to her parents and sisters. Hollander was moved by how much personal time Munger took to share her “real life” with someone who, pre-Facebook, would not have been considered a “friend.” For her to be willing to do that, something must have existed between them before Hollander arrived at Munger’s house.

“Can you really know somebody if you’ve never seen their home?” Hollander asked. “To me, when I started, a friend was someone whose house you knew, someone you had eaten dinner with, but now I’ve realized that might not be as important to the definition of friendship.”  She felt an immediate sense of connection to the Facebook friends she visited, even those she had never met physically—as did they, she believes, evidenced by the high participation rate. The project also serves as a litmus test or Facebook filter. Hollander reaches out to friends about taking their portrait several times. If she gets no response, she unfriends them, weeding out friendships that won’t translate into real life.

“When I first began the project, I imagined what a behind-the-scenes blog with Farm Security Administration photographers of the 1930s would be like,” she writes on her Facebook page, referring to the government-led program that created a photographic record of American life during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. “I thought about how different The Americans would be if the entire world were watching [photographer] Robert Frank’s journey around the U.S. in the [post-war] 1950’s, and how that archive would be a teaching tool for future generations, much like Lewis and Clark’s journals.” At the time, Frank’s photographs were an infamous departure from the glossy, prosperous images of mid-century America and the iconic photo essays of Life magazine. Hollander’s project can be seen as a similar endeavor—capturing the actual people and homes behind the staged façade of a Facebook profile.

Jessica Vitak, a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, examines Facebook’s role in relationship maintenance across subcategories, such as close friend, family member, or casual acquaintance, comparing those who interact frequently outside of Facebook to those who rely on the site as a primary form of communication. Through a combination of surveys, interviews, and server data, she studies how people use the site to exchange emotional and tangible resources. For instance, when users post bad news, looking for support from their friends, or ask for help moving or advice about a restaurant, people are sharing what sociologists call “social capital.”  She’s also looked at how highly engaged Facebook users define online friendships. According to Vitak, people make very clear distinctions between individuals with whom they are “technically connected” through the site and the subset they perceive as “actual friends.”

However, having access to a large network of contacts with little to no time investment required has significant social advantages. “Does it matter that you can see pictures of a high school acquaintance’s family even though you haven’t spoke to her in 20 years?” Vitak asked. “I would argue that, generally speaking, there are benefits to maintaining those weak ties. Social networks can provide a variety of information that our closest friends and family may lack.” For example, she said, if you have a question that a Google search won’t easily answer, you can post a status update and get responses within minutes, depending on the breadth of your Facebook network. Sociologist Mark Granovetter has shown that relatively weak ties between two individuals can act as a “crucial bridge” between “two densely knit groups of close friends.” Acquaintances, as opposed to closer connections, are more likely to move in distinct social circles and therefore have access to a wider range of social information. An acquaintance can link one group to another. When someone attends the wedding of a casual work colleague and meets his close friends, she may keep in touch with some of them and they may end up helping one other—personally or professionally—later on.  Granovetter’s theory suggests that even infrequent relationships, with little emotional closeness or shared history, still play a valuable role in a person’s social existence.

By the same token, responding to a status update or a user’s question has its own benefits, said Nicole Ellison, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. It exposes you to a new set of people, your friend’s “friends.” Ellison and her co-authors examined 20,000 public Facebook updates of users seeking responses from their network to understand what kind of help people tend to request. In a related study, they found that people who ask for favors or advice—Can anybody give me a ride to the airport? What novels should I bring on vacation?—reported a greater sense of social capital (or access to the resources of others) than those who didn’t. In other words, help comes from those who seek it, and Facebook relationships are stronger for those who use the site more actively.

Elizabeth and Amy Munger (Tanja Hollander)

And while it’s easy to trivialize or denigrate the simple action of “liking” a post, Vitak’s research also found that Facebook users value these “lightweight interactions” and that quickly responding to a status or wishing someone a happy birthday signals “a relational investment” on both sides. With that in mind, Vitak cautioned against an all-or-nothing divide—that Facebook is either “a waste of time” or “the most important social development in history.”

“Those who see Facebook as meaningless,” she explained, “will likely not take the steps to share content and interact with network members, and won’t be able to view online interactions as meaningful.”

In fact, the distinction between online and offline may be less relevant than it seems. Thinking about social media as a kind of place you go, divorced from physical reality, is a forced demarcation. Facetiming and meeting a friend for coffee certainly aren’t the same experiences, but as Nathan Jurgenson, a contributing editor at The New Inquiry and a researcher at Snapchat, points out, “the self is fluid.” Facebook messaging one friend and writing in pencil to another, as Hollander did that New Year’s Eve, may be more equivalent ways of communicating and expressing herself than she thought. A video chat is physically intimate, Jurgenson argues. And what he calls “digital dualism,” the separation of online interactions from “real life,” doesn’t capture relationship dynamics in the 21st century.

At the same time, researchers refer to “context collapse,” the way a site like Facebook flattens a network into a homogenous group, compared to offline interactions, where people may share different information about themselves in different contexts. A person is unlikely to tell the exact same stories or jokes, or share the same opinions at the office, the PTA meeting, or at a cocktail party. But Facebook in particular encourages a single identity, according to Robert Kraut, a social psychologist and professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Most people make all of their content visible to all of their friends, and as a result, users experience “bleed through” where all of their posts or pictures are available to all of their connections. “Blurring the boundaries is a double-edged sword,” said Kraut, author of Building Successful Online Communities.

Most of her Facebook friends who are also artists, Hollander said, made “really beautiful homes” for themselves and their families with little money. Occasionally, however, she did come across living spaces that were much nicer than she expected—although most of the time, she found that the home matched her previous conception of the person she was visiting. Sam Gosling, a University of Texas psychologist and the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, studies social perception and what a person’s private space reveals about their personality. He has found that it’s quite hard to express a false identity either at home or online because both contexts reflect the accumulated activities of daily life. It would be difficult to sustain a false persona consistently over time. “It’s worth remembering that even in contexts where people might be able to create false impressions,” said Gosling, “there’s research showing that’s typically not what people want [to do].” Generally, users only feel connected to others when projecting an authentic self.

Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar is famous for his “Dunbar number”—how many people an individual can really be friends with at any given time. His research found that based on the size of an adult brain, the average human can have around 150 people in his or her social group, and that anything more than that is too complex for most of us to process. Think of 150 as the holiday-card list, the broad group of people with whom you want to stay in touch in some meaningful way. According to Dunbar, social media has only reinforced his conclusions. He explained that a recent analysis of one million Facebook pages showed that the layers of friendship (most intimate, best, good, just friends) are the same size as they are “in real life” (about 5, 15, 50, and 150). What seems to happen, Dunbar said, is that Facebook introduces “a few extra people” to the outermost layer of casual acquaintances (people you know but wouldn’t send a holiday card), which can extend out to 500 individuals. Facebook confuses things by calling all of these relationships friends. But while Facebook probably slows a relationship’s “rate of decay” when you no longer meet in person, he suspects social media won’t stop a more intimate friend (say, in the 15 or 50 category) from moving into a further-out ring if there’s no longer any face-to-face contact.

For Hollander, the journeys to her Facebook friends’ homes and the portrait sessions that followed have undoubtedly brought her closer to them. She believes people who might have originally been in Dunbar’s outermost layer of 500 when she started have moved into more intimate circles after she’s spent a night or two in their homes or toured their cities with them. Her Facebook connections might not have really been her friends before the project, but they are now.