David Brooks, the insightful New York Times columnist, has been watching a lot of television lately—comedies, to be specific. Brooks has noticed a shift in how television treats friendship. “For most of television history,” Brooks writes, “sitcoms have been about families.” But now, Brooks observes, “Today’s shows are often about groups of unrelated friends who have the time to lounge around apartments, coffee shops and workplaces exchanging witticisms about each other and the passing scene.”
Brooks and other cultural critics say that this change to what are called “flock comedies” reflects a deeper cultural shift brought about by new technologies and trends such as extended adolescence. “With people delaying marriage and childbearing into their 30s,” Brooks writes, “young people now spend long periods of their lives outside of traditional families, living among diverse friendship tribes.”
The hit new movie, “The Social Network,” chronicles the invention of one of these technologies, Facebook in 2003—that’s right, two thousand and three. Think of how differently we communicated less than a decade ago! Today more and more people communicate with the outside world primarily through their laptops or cell phones. We all know people who have gathered hundreds of so-called “Facebook friends”—if not thousands of them.
But as good and useful as these social-networking technologies can sometimes be, what are they doing to our concept of friendship? As has been said in other contexts, if our friendships are a mile wide, they are probably no more than an inch deep.
According to an American Sociological Review study called “Social Isolation in America,” as of 2004, the average American had just two close friends. That compares with three in 1985. Those reporting no close friends at all exploded from 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004. Even the share of Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had fallen from 33 percent to just over 15 percent. And keep in mind that most of this decline took place before Facebook had really taken hold.
Sure, Facebook may allow us to keep some kind of connection with friends and family with whom we find it hard to stay in touch in these busy times. But is a Facebook friend as good as a real friend? I think not. Referencing the biblical characters of Ruth and Naomi, David Brooks wisely notes, “Throughout history, the most famous friendships were one on one.” The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that close friends “share salt together.” According to author Mark Vernon, they “sit with one another across the course of their lives, sharing its savor — its moments, bitter and sweet.”
Such friendships take time—both quality time and quantity time! They cannot be rushed, and they cannot be created virtually.
So am I saying you should unplug your television set or power down your computer? Now, that’s a tempting thought. But no, when it comes to developing the kinds of relationships that last, and that have a lasting impact, we would do well to emulate Jesus. The Savior, while relating to the multitudes, focused his time on twelve often thick-headed disciples, including an inner circle of three men—Peter, James, and John—one of whom, John, was called “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
If we want to change the world and experience satisfying relationships, sometimes less really is more.