The internet exerts a remarkably powerful, and sometimes intrusive, influence upon language and its usage that can, at times, feel all-pervasive. Whilst it’s true that technological developments throughout the ages have served to shape, and sometimes mangle the language, the advent of such milestones as the Industrial Revolution, mass transit, the internal combustion engine, radio and television may well have left their respective legacies enshrined in the day-to-day language we employ, it is the internet that reigns supreme in potency.
We may think it inevitable that something which is primarily a means of communication and information exchange is going to make some sort of a contribution to the usage and understanding of language – if only in technological terminology – but few could have anticipated just how far-reaching that contribution has been. Ranging from the humble acronym which, despite what text junkies might think, was not a development arising from the use of mobile phones, but was the lingua franca of BBS aficionados long before mobiles came of age, right through to geek speak, typonese and current trending memes, the .net has fundamentally changed our understanding of language. Just consider how many terms in the previous sentence arose from the internet, or have subtly changed their meaning as a result of its influence.
It is the terminology that falls into the latter category – the subtly changed meanings – that i find particularly fascinating, many of which find their roots in social media. Take the word ‘trending’, for example – a rather contrived bastardisation of ‘trend’ which, if indeed it truly existed before social media claimed it, would rarely have featured in anyone but a geographer or cartographer’s vocabulary. This is something that social media is remarkably adept at doing – seizing upon words, phrases and expressions and manipulating them to achieve its own ends. Amongst these particular travesties you’ll find my own particular bugbear: ‘friend’ – not just a word that has altered its meaning but a whole concept that has become corrupted, with perhaps far-reaching effects on society that may only become apparent with hindsight.
Throughout most of my life, a friend has been a person with whom i engage in the practice of an activity called ‘friendship’. Typically, friendship will involve a relationship to a greater or lesser degree; it will tend towards shared, common interests, activities and mutual support and, even when instigated from a random premise, such as commencing correspondence with a pen-friend, many of these same attributes will be present and develop as the friendship grows. Traditionally, the act of becoming friends with another person is known as ‘befriending’ – a verb which Webster’s Dictionary defines as: Act as a friend to (someone) by offering help or support.
By contrast, a friend in terms of the internet can be a very different beast indeed. There is no specific requirement for any sort of a relationship to exist or for any of those common interests to be evident and, as for supporting and helping, these can often be non-existent elements. Even the word ‘friendship’ feels inappropriate – would you use that word in the context of the people who follow you on Facebook or sign up to your Twitter feed? All of which brings us to the act itself: Becoming a virtual friend… ‘friending’. To me, it says it all, like ‘trending’, a friend of this sort is just a number – an additional subscriber – and is, according to Webster to: Add (someone) to a list of contacts associated with a social networking Web site. A very different kettle of fish to the traditional notion of friendship, and yet we have a whole generation to whom anyone considered ‘a friend’ is far more likely to be defined in this manner, than in the traditional sense.
It is a trend, (there’s that word again!), that you’ll see time and time again in sl – noobs, and sometimes not-so-noobs, desperate to make connections within a virtual world that they possibly are yet to understand, will throw out friendship requests willy-nilly. If we leave aside the ‘gimme lindens and freebies’, along with ‘teh sex’ elements of such requests, i can’t help but think it’s that same Facebook mentality, albeit in a pretty landscape. It’s more a numbers game than a deep human need to connect with others on an emotional level – which is surely what real friendship is all about?
My friends’ list in sl is pathetically small: take out the alt accounts of my closer friends and i have a grand total of around 15 people on the list. Even so, i have many, many friends inworld with whom i share companionship, interests and a great deal of time. There’s a huge amount of support, encouragement and interdependency between us too and it is these friends who make my sl a very special place to be.
Despite the ‘friending’ element that can be found inhabiting sl, just as anywhere else on the internet, i’ve also found that sl is very much a bastion of the old-fashioned idea of friendship too and long may that hold true.
Whether you have 5 or 500 sl friends, i hope that all of them are friends in the true sense of the word… and you’d better be a damn good friend to them too!
Because we are your friends
You’ll never be alone again
Ooh… come on!
Justice – We Are Your Friends