The devaluation of “like” & “friend” as lingual concepts

Posted on January 27, 2011


The expansion of social circles due to web and social media has many anthropologists in a quandary, some claim that social networking via a device depersonalizes our interactions and stunts our social skills, while other see a brave new world, with the concept of social interaction changing significantly over the next decade.

When we were all growing up, to like someone meant something. I can remember grade 7 angst about which boy liked which girl which only intensified the further up the grades (and the more hormones) you got. For my kids, liking and not liking something is a strong comment on an emotional position and could lead to a tantrum if taken lightly (normally in a shopping mall, with lots of people staring. Clucking their tongues and questioning parenting abilities). Similarly somebody being your friend meant an awkward gut wrenching moment where you would ask “will you be my friend”. Friendship meant sharing secrets, hopes, pains and gathering shared experiences – things that thanks to (or despite which) make us the people we are today.

We now find ourselves in a world where “like” has become the most often used verb and adjective. Not in speech, but in our online vocabulary. “Like” become a replacement both for “please vote for me” and “that’s nice” as often we don’t really “like” the thing we are liking (how often have you pity liked a friends status update) but we think its ok, or we agree or we think its funny etc. Most interestingly, what will the impact of all this liking be on the current generation from a vocabulary perspective? Will we still like other people and if we do, what will liking somebody actually mean? How will you clearly differentiate a “real” like from a “facebook” like. Friends, which were always limited, are now numerous and one has to wonder has the very value of these words been shifted by our increased usage and reduced expectations. Where is the gut wrenching fear before you ask somebody to be your friend? The friend discovery process online is reminiscent of using a go between to ask the other person if they would be your friend, only without the emotional payload and hours of pre and post analysis. Where is the implied depth and connection that the friendship will bring? Is there a new class of friendship, the Facebook friend, versus the real friend and if so, how do you distinguish between them in everyday language?

In a thesis put forward by british anthropologist Robin Dunbar in 1992 it was hypothesized that the optimal number of connections is around 150, beyond that we seem to drop off significantly in our ability to interact successfully or form some type of cohesive unit. Dunbar’s surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village and the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity etc. Dunbar has argued that 150 would be the mean group size for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group’s time would have to be devoted to social grooming. Language, he claims, may have formed as a “cheaper” way of social grooming, i.e. one which takes up less time.

We now have much larger networks of people that we can stay “connected” with than ever before. One could argue that upcoming generations will be far more capable in the relationships arena than we currently are. They will manage far larger networks of connections as they have a lot more practice at managing a large number of friends. Also on their side will be our new social grooming tools that enhance the time effectiveness of keeping and maintaining connections. While “poking” somebody may not be as meaningful as checking their back for ticks, sharing photos may be and a new era of social interaction tools is upon us. Friends may not be real friends, and liking something may not mean you actually like it; but the span of interactions we will have going into the future is sure to extend. It’s just a question of how quickly our language can evolve to keep up.