This Friendship has been Digitized

New York Times (2019)
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Abstract

We can share experiences with a person online, but the experiences seem thin when compared with face-to-face experiences. Online adventures (social networking, gaming) can certainly strengthen friendship bonds that were forged in more embodied interactions, but can they create those bonds? The kind of presence required for deep friendship does not seem cultivated in many online interactions. Presence in friendship requires “being with” and “doing for” (sacrifice). The forms of “being with” and “doing for” on social networking sites (or even in interactive gaming) seem trivial because the stakes are very low. More important, the “shared space” of digital life is disembodied space. We cannot really touch one another, smell one another, detect facial expressions or moods, and so on. Real bonding is more biological than psychological and requires physical contact. The emotional entanglement of real friendship produces oxytocin and endorphins in the brains and bodies of friends — cementing them together in ways that are more profound than other relationships. It is possible that virtual reality and augmented reality technology will soon be able to generate such friendship-forming experiences. Having embodied adventures with another person — even in a V.R. suit — is more likely to trigger the deeper oxytocin-based bonding. Current social networking, however, seems to privilege the shallow triggers of the brain’s reward system (dopamine squirts in the ventral tegumental area).

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Stephen Asma
Columbia College Chicago

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