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Facebook | Has Facebook Changed the Definition of the Word 'Friend'?

Updated on December 26, 2011

© Copyright 2011 Tracy Lynn Conway with all rights reserved.

Before Facebook, my definition of the word “friend” was someone that you knew and spent face-to-face time with; this person usually shared your interests or genuinely cared about you.

A friend of a friend was not a “friend” and an acquaintance was someone that you knew.


Facebook users can keep track of how many friends they have and see how many friends other users have.
Facebook users can keep track of how many friends they have and see how many friends other users have.

Before Facebook, people didn’t keep track of how many friends they had. With the number of Facebook users reaching above a staggering 600 million, more and more people care about the number of friends they have for the sake of competition and as a way, it seems, to inflate their egos. This is because Facebook displays and keeps a count of your friends which is shown on the users profile page.

Webster dictionary describes a “friend” as "a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard."

Mexican Folk Art Circle of Friends
Mexican Folk Art Circle of Friends

It is interesting to compare the Mexican Folk Art circle of friends, which is based on intimacy, with the facebook friend wheel, (see below) which is based on volume and popularity.

The legend of the Circle of friends says that at the end of the evening, friends would gather around the fire and share their hearts. They would each speak of the good qualities of others. It was said that if they shared memories while the embers faded, their friendship was sealed, bringing them closer together.


Wikipedia offers a more expansive definition:

Friendship is a form of interpersonal relationship generally considered to be closer than association, although there is a range of degrees of intimacy in both friendships and associations.

Value that is found in friendships is often the result of a friend demonstrating the following on a consistent basis:

  • The tendency to desire what is best for the other
  • Sympathy and empathy
  • Honesty, perhaps in situations where it may be difficult for others to speak the truth, especially in terms of pointing out the perceived faults of one's counterpart
  • Mutual understanding and compassion
  • Trust in one another (able to express feelings - including in relation to the other's actions - without the fear of being judged); able to go to each other for emotional support
  • Positive reciprocity - a relationship is based on equal give and take between the two parties.

The facebook friend wheel is an attractive way to show off how many friends you have.
The facebook friend wheel is an attractive way to show off how many friends you have.

Unless you are an avid social butterfly or a politician looking for votes, how in the world can you actively maintain 500 friendships? Keeping a count of friends turns an intimate experience of relating with people into a competitive sport. This is a mechanical way of viewing relationships and pulls us away from caring about the value of each friendship.


Webster's Dictionary defines an acquaintance as "a person known to one, usually a person with whom one is not on terms of great intimacy."

Wikipedia states this about acquaintances:

Acquaintance: a friend, but sharing of emotional ties isn't present. An example would be a coworker with whom you enjoy eating lunch or having coffee, but would not look to for emotional support. Many "friends" that appear on social networking sites are generally acquaintances in real life.

Dunbar's Number

Scientific research shows that our brain can only remember a certain amount of names and that when we make new friends we start to forget the names of friends we are in less contact with. Oxford professor of evolutionary psychology Robin Dunbar claims that 150 is the maximum number of social relationships any human can handle.

The truth is that many of these facebook friends are really acquaintances or former friends. Instead of facebook reflecting real life, it has created its own pseudo life with the image of lots of friends when in reality only some of these are real friends.

Path is a new social network that limits users to  50 close friends
Path is a new social network that limits users to 50 close friends

I met a woman at an art school who told me that she signed up for an art class to make more real life friends and felt lonelier even after acquiring a large number of Facebook friends.

A former senior platform manager at Facebook created what has been considered an anti-social network called Path, which limits users to just 50 friends. This is meant to counteract the lack of intimacy on social networks like facebook. It is believed that with 50 friends you can express more closely who you really are.

It saddens me to think of friendship in terms of a number to compare with others. In my life, I try to focus on quality rather than quantity, I happen to have around 150 Facebook friends which coincides with Dunbar's number. Out of the 150 friends, a much smaller number of these are close friends, the rest are acquaintances and former friends.

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    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Stayingalivemoma, either you need to give it more time to see what it's about or you are just not a Facebook person.

    • stayingalivemoma profile image

      Valerie Washington 6 years ago from Tempe, Arizona

      i joined facebook about 3 weeks ago and i honestly don't know what all the hooplah is about!

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Angela, I agree with you that although Facebook has changed the meaning of the word 'friend' it also opens up many possibilities to meet an array of new people that we might otherwise have never have connected with. Perhaps this masculine competitive approach to friendship is offset by this unprecedented possibility. Thank you!

    • angela martinez67 profile image

      Angela Martinez 6 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      hi tracy :) good hub! i do agree that true friendship doesn't mean quantity but quality..and that having over a hundred or thousand as fb friends doesn't measure u being friendly or the fb "ms. congeniality" of all seasons ;p kidding aside tho'...i do believe that we can find real true good friends that we haven't got in real personal contact tho'. personally, i've got over 200 fb friends on list, but in reality, maybe it's just about 10% of whom are people i can really call as real friends, some families...and about 2% real cool acquaintances online that i feel are really godo friends of mine. thanks for the great insights in this hub. have a nice day! GB xx

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Ian, thank you for the comment and the follow!

    • ian contacts profile image

      ian contacts 6 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Good reading...I particularly agree with you on the "value" and "positive reciprocity" or equal give and take, views on friendship. I'll follow you too and read another of your hubs in due course.

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      @jseven - You are right, Facebook doesn't seem to be a "best friend" hang out. With most of my close friends, we don't communicate on Facebook. Thank you!

      @calpol25 - I am glad that you can relate to my observations. Thank you!

      @Danette Watt - The popularity contest aspect feels shallow, I agree. Facebook has added a new dimension to interpersonal relationships that didn't exist before. At first it is new and fun but after that we need to consider where it fits into our lives. I agree with your points. Thank you!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      Tracy,I was just thinking of this very subject yesterday. Sites like FB - and yes, even Hub Pages - are really nothing more than a popularity contest to see how many 'friends' one can collect. Never having been popular in the first place, I don't even try any more. Although I admit most of the friends I have on FB are students of mine or people I would consider more acquaintance than friend. Still, they don't number in the 100s and I have been known to ignore a request for friendship b/c I don't feel a real connection with that person.

      I can probably count on 2 hands the number of people I truly can say they are my friends. I think we lose something in interpersonal relationships from too much FB and other social media.

      Very nice hub.

    • calpol25 profile image

      Callum 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland, UK (At Home With My Wonderful Partner)

      Brilliant hub, have to admit I am a facebook addict as well as HP but your quite right about friends on their I can literally say that I have 70 who are real friends the rest are acquaintances etc. Calpol25

    • jseven profile image

      jseven 6 years ago from Michigan

      I like this hub and how true it is. Facebook for me is a place to socialize and share my online writings, but I don't think of it as my "best friend" hangout. I have two close friends, besides my children. Voted up.

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      @ubanichijioke - Yes, there is a mindlessness to the way facebook makes us look at friendships. Thank you!

    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 6 years ago from Lagos

      Tracy, you ve made important observations. We should really mind who we meet, people we add, and those that are our friends on facebook. I concur with all that you said. Thanks for sharing.

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Thelma, thank you. I think you have a practical attitude about categorizing and sometimes deleting friends. I also wonder sometimes what the motivation is behind someone requesting to be a friend. I have had some former classmates request to be my friend and then rarely use their account. To me those people are either simply saying hello or trying to accrue more Facebook friends. I agree with what you have said about true friends. Here is a quote that comes to mind "There is no distance too far between friends, for friendship gives wings to the heart." Author Unknown

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 6 years ago from Germany

      Great hub! I agree with you about friendship. I cathegorize my friendship in facebook with very close friends, old and new friends,friends from a distance and acquintances.I always ask myself why when somebody want to be friends with me. Every now and then I "deleted" some of the so called "friends", those who are not interacting. But my really truelly friends are those I care & cares for me with loyalty and honesty without any geographical bounderies.. Thanks for sharing.

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
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      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Tera715, I agree with you that Facebook can improve connections between friends and family and sometimes it is easier to post your latest news on Facebook than share it individually. On the other hand, I have been frustrated by a few long distance friends and family members that don't post enough on Facebook. A social networking class does sound interesting. Thanks for your comment!

    • Tera715 profile image

      Tera715 6 years ago from Panama City, Florida

      I really think Facebook has kept me updated on peoples lives that I would never keep in contact with in real life ever. It's also really strange because I keep in contact with family members via Facebook more often than in real life too. It has its pros and cons for sure, but I definitely think it has changed the dynamic of friendships. I know personally that I have found things out about close friends on Facebook before they have actually told me and that has actually made me mad. Very interesting concept. I am convinced Social Networking will be a sociology class in the near future.

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
      Author

      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Sharon, I agree with you that Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with people that you know, such as family and classmates. Having friends on Facebook that we really don't know lends itself to a watered down definition of the word "friend". Thank you for commenting!

    • SwiftlyClean profile image

      SwiftlyClean 6 years ago from Texas

      I love the use of FaceBook to Friend people that you do know.I think we as a people are so prong to following what someonelse might do.We as a people have to be more aware of our actions on excepting people as friends that we do not know.Friend are people we do know.Family,classmates(some of them we do not know:))>..humor.

      Peace!

      Sharon Smith

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image
      Author

      Tracy Lynn Conway 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Kksonakiy, I like how you describe Facebook friends in terms of "sharing ur life" this gives it a different dimension and sets it apart from a real life friend.

      Vissitor, Yes the meaning of the word 'friend' has been transformed and continues to change as Facebook has a greater impact on the lives of more and more people. Accumulating more friends turns popularity into a sport for all to play. Thank you for your votes!

      Shawnee Emmett, Thank you! You are right when you say that Facebook has "watered down what it means to be a friend." If we look back to the Mexican Art Circle of Friends and what that meant compared to what we have now with social media which includes Facebook, Twitter and others, you see life in terms of sound bites rather than deep connections. This doesn't seem like progress at all. It is a distorting reality, you are right. I suspect that younger people could perhaps be more comfortable with this 'reality' than older people who knew the world before social media was the norm.

      Daborn7, Thank you!

    • daborn7 profile image

      daborn7 6 years ago from California

      Great Hub!

    • Shawnee Emmett profile image

      Shawnee Emmett 6 years ago from New York

      Great piece! I appreciated that you included the Mexican Folk Art Circle of Friends. We have a lot to learn from the indigenous peoples. I've struggled with this whole new way of relating (virtually) as well. I'm a Facebook user (it took me 2 years to join!) and in some ways it's broadened my circle (some people from my past who I lost track of re-surfaced) but it also has so watered down what it means to be a friend. People say, "we're not friends but we're friends on Facebook." Such a strange virtual "reality," it's very distorting. I wonder, how down the road, our new way of relating and "connecting" will shape us as people.

    • vissitor profile image

      vissitor 6 years ago from Sonoma Valley, California

      I use Facebook a lot and confess that I never really looked at the way it has transformed what it means to be and have friends. As you point out though, most Facebook friendships are based on accumulated numbers, and so the traditional meaning of 'friend' is now becoming less valuable. Thought provoking article, Tracy. Voted UP and Useful.

    • kksonakiya profile image

      Krishnakant Sonakiya 6 years ago from Gwalior

      You have certainly dragged me into this. :) I agree with the definition of friend is changed now a days. Isn't it funny? We never meet people and yet we call them friends because we can share our life with them.

      May be that's the secret of it. May friendship is just 'sharing ur life with someone who cares'. Or may be i m just playing dumb.