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“Hyper-Links”: Redefining Friendship in the Digital Age

We all know that feeling. It’s just the two of you, walking towards each other in the hallway. I mean, you’ve “liked” his or her profile pictures and left complimentary comments on his or her Facebook profile picture, yet right now in this moment, you don’t know if you should raise your hand and give a wave, or even make eye contact at all. Suddenly, the piece of lint on your jeans becomes extremely interesting and you try not to look at their face.

It’s a strange phenomenon: just hours ago, you liked his or her Facebook profile picture with a multitude of cheesing emojis, but now, you can’t even muster a simple greeting to their face.

Teenagers like us, especially here in Irvine, are incessantly linked to one another, and we now have the ability to interact at a level completely unprecedented in history. We are mutually connected every minute of every day, whether it be via texting, Facebook, Twitter or just old-fashioned (gulp) e-mail.

But while these connections have grown in quantity, they have clearly declined in quality.

In 1995, Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar found that there is a close relationship between the brain size of primates and their average number of social connections. For humans, our brain size predicts that we can only maintain about 150 real friendships as a time. Even before the Facebook age, this study was so earth-shattering that this number, 150 social connections, was popularly termed Dunbar’s Number.

Odds are, if you’re a teenager on Facebook, you have close to 500 friends.That’s almost four times more than 150.

The growing disconnect between the number of friends that we have online and the actual number of friendships that we are able to maintain is a sobering reality that today’s teenagers are forced to confront. Out of those 500 friends, how many of them do you actually know? How many can you actually sustain a conversation with?

We walk past our Facebook friends every day without even a passing glance, but never hesitate to “like” their profile pictures or status updates. We’ve never had a single conversation with them, yet still are tuned into their every move.

Why is this so troubling? For one, social media allows people to build idealistic façades behind which they hide their true selves. We spend hours and hours carefully crafting our online selves and tuning how we want to be perceived by others. It allows us to hide behind a virtual shield—in real life, there’s no way to deflect unwanted questions or take several minutes to think about what you’re going to say.

With the advent of social media, the word “friend” has become a verb. There’s no talk of “making friends,” just “friending” or “adding,” and this has massively devalued the idea of real friendship.

Ten years ago—five years ago, even—the process of making friends was far more complicated than clicking a button. Chance personal encounters were almost always the basis for life-long friendships. Today, ephemeral friendships are made and forgotten with a single tap or click.

Perhaps an even more sobering thought is whether or not we actually do have any real friends in this binary age of interconnectedness. Can you really just walk past a true friend without even acknowledging their presence? We don’t think so.

So confidently flick off that piece of lint on your jeans and greet the person with a warm smile and a wave. In the words of freshman Rangi Thimor: “Face to face is always better than face to Facebook.”

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