Feb 16, 2023

Theories of Modern Friendship


Elaine Chennatt

A study of genuine connection in the digital age

Image By:
Madeline Mullenbach

When I was seven years old, I had a fairly common friendship experience: My best friend of two years decided she was finished with me and had a new best friend, just like that. Unlike most at this age, we didn’t make up. Instead, she refused to return the friendship bracelet I had spent my weekend making, and had the audacity to orchestrate an elaborate, taunting scheme to display that she had a new best friend upon whom to bestow the bracelet.

This is one of my earliest memories of friendship. The deceit—the audacity to steal my friendship bracelet—is a vivid memory in my mind, and while I’ve made my peace with this experience, I can still remember how much it hurt. I can’t remember any of those girls’ names now or what they looked like, but I’ve had to recognize how this early experience has influenced how I socialize and allow friendship into my life.

My capacity to make friends is something I’ve been compelled to reflect on more as three years ago—just before the strike of the pandemic—I moved to a small island town, the kind of place where people live their entire life with their core, tight-knit friendship group (if they don’t leave during early adulthood). It’s been tough to “find my people,” despite knowing on an intellectual level that I deeply need it.

I also find myself contending with the deluge of hashtags that permeate the friendship circles across my social media: #girlgang, #girlsquad, #squadgoals, #girltribe. Resisting the perfection-economy highlights of our digital world is exhausting enough without also being reminded that my Instagram feed distinctly lacks the quintessential “girl group at brunch” content.

I’ve allowed this thinking to make me feel inadequate about who I am as a friend, and how I engage with others. If I’m honest, it can be a heavy weight to hold, leading down a one-track thought process that ultimately comes back to black-and-white thoughts of, “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not someone people want to be friends with.” It’s never that simple, of course. 

All this led me to start Googling, and I began to find more people like me who struggle to make friends (hurray for not being alone!). I was even more surprised to find out there’s an entire sub-category of psychological research dedicated to studying friendship and making friends as an adult.

One area of this research that particularly piqued my interest is the prevalence of social media friendships—that is, friendships that occur or are initially developed through digital platforms. While some of these friendships can come to fruition with IRL meetings, they also may continue to exist solely online.

Aristotle (350 B.C.E./1908) famously asserted there are three core types of friendships we all seek and need in life, as described in Book VIII of The Nicomachean Ethics:

  1. Utility Friendships: These are more give-and-take in that we form the friendship around having a need met. Perhaps carpooling with a colleague to save money or maintaining a dialogue with neighbors so they’ll water the plants when we’re away.
  2. Pleasure Friendships: These are the ‘good’ ones, where we derive pleasure and enjoyment from spending time with each other.
  3. Virtue Friendships: These are the fairy gold dust friendships, the soul connections, the friendships with those you ‘just click’ with. These are the friends we enjoy and cherish as unique, wonderful beings.

Virtue friendships can start as utility and pleasure friendships and grow into something more with time as we get to know each other better, but this can be rare—hence the fairy gold dust. Aristotle also advises that Virtue friendships are unique and special because these friends share their lives with each other, and in doing so, the friends in these pairings become ‘another self’ of one another. Essentially, through the commitment to the friendship, individuals in virtue friendships become reflections of one another. When I think about virtue friendships, I think of my longest-standing friend, Louise, and how we can know exactly what the other is thinking with just a look, or how we know exactly when the other needs a pick-me-up phone call without either of us having to ask for it.

I just need to give it time—and forgive myself for not fitting into some specific ‘friendship’ box that ultimately doesn’t exist.

Aristotelean theories of friendship have been held in high esteem for centuries and made a lot of sense… but then came the digital age. If Pleasure and Virtue friendships are categorized by components of spending time together and living a shared life—in a physical sense—where does that leave social media friendships? Can they represent true friendship?

Aristotle (350 B.C.E./1908) further clarifies that, for human beings, living alongside one another is accomplished by sharing “conversation and thought,” so any medium that allows friends to share conversations and thoughts should be compatible with establishing Virtue friendships, right? This potential comes as a relief to me, as someone whose core friend group lives on the other side of the world and who has—in recent years—found a great many beautiful connections through social media.

I recently had the opportunity to meet a couple of said social media friends IRL while attending a writers’ festival in a neighboring city. After working and living as a borderline hermit on my island home, I felt a familiar swirl of anxiety in my gut, but resisted it to ultimately enjoy two wonderful afternoons with previously online-only friends. My paranoia that they’d find me a fraud dissipated, and we have continued to enjoy conversations online and promised to meet up again.

Researchers are already relishing the opportunity to expand on our ideas—and perhaps ideals—of friendship by exploring social media relationships. Friendships via social networking sites are reflecting broader socio-cultural shifts away from tight-knit, IRL friendship groups to what Wellman (2002) refers to as Networked Individualism—summarized by Manago and Vaughn (2015) as “a system of sociality that places the individual at the center of personally tailored social networks unencumbered by physical limitations.”

Researchers Manago and Vaughn (2015) have since expanded on this concept by introducing the term ‘Customized Sociality,’ based on the idea that young adults have at their disposal convenient and efficient tools for relatedness and increased options for complete autonomy. We can customize our sense of self and friendships like never before through the creation of our digital lives—sometimes multiple digital lives.

That sounds great in one sense, but it begs the question of where authenticity fits in. There’s a real danger in creating echo chambers of our own thoughts and opinions. Healthy relationships with others should also show us where our edges lie, and create safe experiences to grow and become better people—‘customized sociality’ seems to take this for granted. 

With this understanding in mind, Manago and Vaughn (2015) do point to the risks of relying solely on online social connections, including “social snacking” and the “allure of transient pleasures of instant gratification friendship.” 

Another term that has arisen around the risks of online friendships is the concept of parasocial relationships. Parasocial relationships refer to one-sided friendships between an individual and another, usually a celebrity or influencer. In this dynamic, the figure will share and communicate in ways that encourage individuals to feel close to them, as though they have formed a bond or “shared life” with them. In these relationships, there need never be any reciprocation for the individual who feels this bond to believe in their connection and friendship. Celebrities and influencers are often aware of these dynamics and, in a cash-for-content digital market, lean into them to promote products or partnerships they’re paid to advertise. It’s not difficult to see why this is problematic.

Playing jump rope with Aristotle’s friendship types, social media friendships are lovely when they work—as I have often experienced, including connecting with others in my current home simply through a shared network of connections—but can be troublesome and abusive when they don’t.

My dive into this research has brought me full circle to grappling with my ideas of friendship, and who I am as a friend. Maybe I’m old school, but I find the physical element to a social life to be crucial. I miss the days of impromptu coffee mornings and “Just stopped by to see if you were home… Here’s a cake I bought from the bakery—let’s split it!” type events that used to litter my days when I lived a stone’s throw from friends in England. I want that again, more than ever, in a (mostly) post-pandemic world. So, how do I find it?

Acknowledging that our capacities for making, maintaining, choosing, and accepting friendships are as diverse as any other part of our personality is the best way to get comfortable with who we are as friend-makers.

According to psychologist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer (2017), I just need to give it time—and forgive myself for not fitting into some specific ‘friendship’ box that ultimately doesn’t exist. Kirmayer talks about the challenges of making friends as adults, with the only “rule” being there is no rulebook. As adults, we’re more set in our ways, so making friends while staying true to ourselves is no simple feat. She also advises about the dangers of “should” thinking when it comes to socializing:

“When making friends, it’s easy to fall victim to the ‘shoulds’ we impose on ourselves: ‘I should have more friends,’ ‘I really should go to that party,’ ‘I should be more outgoing or extroverted.’ The reality, though, is that imposing these kinds of rules or expectations can be wholly counterproductive. Instead of getting caught up in self-imposed rules, focus on the things that genuinely represent who you are and the kinds of people you’d like to meet.” (Kirmayer, 2017)

I know I’m not alone in feeling like I’m “bad at making friends,” if there is such a thing, and I think many like me will connect with what Kirmayer writes, as it’s a healthy reminder that the only focus we should have when seeking friendship is how much value it adds to our lives. Friendship is most simply a connection we should both give and take from—it’s about how much the friendship benefits all involved, and “shoulds” and rules need not be added.

As a society, we tend to reward and celebrate extroversion and the most outgoing people. We see these individuals as the epitome of social vivacity, and it can lead many—myself included—to believe that this is the bar we should all aim for in our social lives. 

One of the biggest things helping me come to psychologically-safe terms with this introverted part of my personality is accepting that I’ll never hit it off with everyone I meet. Accepting this reality removes the burden of feeling the need to be liked and make friends everywhere I go. In fact, it even makes it easier to make friends, as I’m not consciously thinking about it all the time. By accepting myself, I shift my self-perception and find ways to allow my personality to work for me.

Acknowledging that our capacities for making, maintaining, choosing, and accepting friendships are as diverse as any other part of our personality is the best way to get comfortable with who we are as friend-makers. As Kirmayer (2017) advises—there are no die-hard rules for making friends, just the ones that work for you.

Aristotle. (1908). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.) The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html (Original work published 350 B.C.E) 
Kirmayer, M. (2017, August 25). 5 lies about adult friendships: Misconceptions and truths about our relationships with friends. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/casual-close/201708/5-lies-about-adult-friendships
Manago, A. M., & Vaughn, L. (2015). Social media, friendship, and happiness in the millennial generation. In M. Demir (Ed.), Friendship and happiness: Across the life-span and cultures (pp. 187–206). Springer Science + Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9603-3_11
Wellman, B. (2002). Little boxes, globalization, and networked individualism. In M. Tanabe, P. van den Besselaar, & T. Ishida (Eds.), Digital cities II: Computational and sociological approaches (pp. 10–25). Berlin: Springer.

Elaine Chennatt is a writer and educator from London, currently based in nipaluna, lutruwita (Tasmania). Her writing tends to center on how we can learn from our lived experiences to become more authentic and fulfilled versions of ourselves. You can find her online at wordswithelaine.com