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Future friendships: How technology is transforming our relationships

What does the future of friendship look like in the post-truth, alternative fact, cat-fishing, trolling, ghosting, cyber-bullying online world? It’s complicated, says TRA's cultural strategist Antonia Mann.

At Facebook’s F8 conference this year, Mark Zuckerberg boasted that with the new Facebook AR camera you could add a second coffee mug to your picture “so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone”. Hang on. I thought the Internet, and Facebook in particular, was about connecting people. In fact, in the history of time, have people ever had so many friends? Or, more accurately, ‘friends’.

Such contradictions are inherent in the evolving human relationship to technology. With technology and social media an inseparable part of how we navigate relationships today, the meaning and dynamics of friendship have changed, and the term ‘friend’ itself has become inadequate.

Heavy with expectations and assumptions, it does not reflect the many different degrees of friendship and related behaviours that digital technology and social media has introduced into our lives. And the idea that we are now friends with brands stretches the paradigm even further, as our favourite brands begin to establish reciprocal relationships and connect on a deeper emotional level.  

But digital communication is inherently faceless. How do people, and brands for that matter, navigate a world where the ability to read facial expression and body language has been removed? We can intuit emotion only if we truly know the person we are digitally communicating with. So where does that leave digital friendships and how do we replicate the ability to read genuine human emotion?

Real and imagined

While social media and other technologies give us greater options for finding, connecting and maintaining friendships, how easy is it to nurture fundamental and emotional elements of friendship such as honesty, trust, empathy, intimacy, and vulnerability in an online world that breeds behaviour quite the opposite of this.

“Trying to find the person in between the life they’ve created virtually and the real life. I think that’s the biggest problem of our generation now.” – TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

Such conflicts and paradoxes are well-known: being more connected helps sufferers of anxiety and depression yet also causes depression; we have more friends than ever yet feel more isolated. VR opens up a whole world of possibilities for sharing experiences yet is essentially a solitary experience.

And brands face an interesting paradox around their ability to trigger a positive emotional connection in a place where they have not been invited to play. Brand connections play a role in our shared understanding of the brand but this only happens when we trigger an emotional response. Neuroscience shows us that when we watch someone undertaking a dangerous activity our brain replicates the feelings of fear despite the fact that we ourselves are not in danger. Likewise, if brands can overcome the barriers and replicate positive emotions in a digital world they will significantly increase their ability to connect and influence – or, in other words, making friends with their customer base.

Block work

Savvy and sceptical about navigating online relationships, millennials are nevertheless troubled by real life consequences and visceral emotional responses.

It’s an accepted fact that we all promote certain sides of ourselves on social media. While millennials may have hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ online, they are conscientious about who their real friends are. The crowded online friendship space is just one element in the overwhelming busy-ness that people feel in their lives – their true friends are the ones they make time for.

Even so, many fear that their IRL social skills are being affected by the amount of time they spend communicating digitally.

“I don’t even like talking to people on the phone anymore. Being able to communicate has become easier but it doesn’t mean we have become better communicators.” – TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

“It widens your circle 10x. You get invited to events easily, there’s just no limit to how far you can go socially with Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. However, I do feel I am more comfortable in the social media world, talking to people there rather than meeting up.” – TRA’s The Listening Project 3: Millennials

Digital communication allows people to avoid awkward and emotionally uncomfortable moments. So when those moments do happen in real life, rather than being able to deal with awkwardness as a normal part of everyday communication, we hide.

Sherry Turkle, social psychologist and Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, calls this the ‘Goldilocks effect’. You can have your friendships at the temperature you want them – not too close, not too distant, just right. And when you want to end things, it can usually happen without penalty from family or community.

Saving face

In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age on how flight from conversation is undermining our relationships, creativity, and productivity, Turkle argues that all the instant messages, texts and minimally effortful “likes” and asynchronous communications are diminishing people’s capacity for empathy and ability to communicate in real life situations. One of the more prevalent behavioural examples of this is the rather deplorable practice of ‘ghosting,’ the unilateral ending of a relationship by suddenly stopping all communication with no explanation. This is a common occurrence in the dating scene, but friends can certainly be ghosted, too.

If you do not participate in the online dating or friendship scene, however, don’t feel smug that you have escaped such experiences. Our fading capacity for human interaction is arguably happening in many areas of life and affecting all sorts of relationships. Consider that people can (and do) shut themselves inside and entertain themselves, order and organise their food, groceries, cleaner, or driver all through an app, without having to talk to anyone. This isn’t great for your small talk skills. Collaboration is one of the most important skills for how we work today, but that collaboration is going to unravel pretty quickly without empathy, compassion and developed communication skills.

But let’s say we do decide to leave the house and make some IRL friends. Yes, there are apps for that. Funnily, enough, it was dating apps like Tinder that broke ground for friendship apps to become normalised. Hey!Vina is a friend-finding app for women who are travelling or have just moved to a new city. Huggle is an app that introduces people based on common location and interests, rather than appearances.

Despite warnings of our diminishing social skills, disappearing capacity for empathy and algorithmic-based means of finding friends, you actually do need some interpersonal skills to move from chat, to meeting, to actual friendship. And you need the gumption, vulnerability and risk of rejection to go out and meet someone. According to eHarmony, 20 percent of those in current, committed relationships began online and seven percent of marriages in 2015 were between couples that met on a dating website. That’s a significant number that suggests people are managing to communicate fairly well, whichever their preferred combination of channels.

Artificial sweeteners

Apps are just a current invention providing a tool to fulfil a basic human need for companionship. The tools we use to fulfil this need will evolve as technology does, but the underlying desire won’t. And if we look towards the future (not even that far) we see robots, AI and machine learning. Which begs the question, what will honesty, trust, empathy, intimacy, and vulnerability look like in such a world?

Popular culture has imagined many scenarios for this. It’s hard to talk about the future of relationships without talking about the movie Her, the story of a man who falls in love with his operating system.

“Even if you come home late and I'm already asleep, just whisper in my ear one little thought you had today. Because I love the way you look at the world. And I'm so happy I get to be next to you and look at the world through your eyes” -Theodore Twombly, Her

Currently, every major technology player is developing a voice-activated AI assistant, or operating system. According to The Guardian, people who have bought Amazon’s Alexa report that they quickly and easily start thinking of the device as a proxy member of the family. As one interviewee said: “Even when I’ve tried to call her ‘it’, it feels wrong. She has a name. She’s Alexa.” What brand would not relish the idea that they could forge this level of relationship with end users?

In fact, we fall easily into humanising robots. Back in the early 1960s, MIT computer scientist Joesph Wiezenbaum invented a computer therapist – or in today’s terms, a chatbot therapist – called ELIZA and let non-technical staff interact with her. Her intelligence was made up of only pre-programmed questions and responses, but he was astounded and appalled to discover that some ended up spending hours sharing personal problems with her, believing she could help them.

Other studies have shown that humans find it hard to be mean to robots once they are humanised. For example, they struggle to turn them off when they are pleading with you not to.

While effort is going into making robots and artificial intelligence more human, the fact that robots have always been presented as
non-emotional, without judgement or reaction, can work in their favour. It has been found that in certain situations, people open up more to robots than humans, particularly when the context may be taboo or illegal.

Robots are probably the ultimate friends – you can tell them everything, they keep secrets, they will do practical things for you that make your life easier, you won’t have to deal with their neuroses and emotional dramas, they won’t judge you, and they will never, ever ghost you. But unless we completely lose our capacity for empathy and compassion, we are likely to still feel guilty if we try to terminate these friendships. This human experience is examined in the critically acclaimed Black Mirror episode ‘Be right back’, where a woman orders an AI clone of her deceased boyfriend but soon realises it will never replace him. Though she tries, she is ultimately unable to get rid of him, and keeps him in the attic for years to come.

Should the reality of our relationships end up following the imaginings of popular culture, perhaps AI achieving sentience will force humans to regain the humanity that seems to be slipping through our fingers and create more opportunities for people to emotionally connect.