Monday, November 16, 2009

Online Friendship

Should everyone be friends online?

One of my favorite talks at the IDF conference last week at the New School was Sean Cubitt's talk on the immateriality of labor panel. He mentioned friendship in relation to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (how there are different types of friendships -his example was between the artist and the patron). He contrasted this with friendship in online communities - where friendship is now commodified and 'has a history.' It becomes more akin to joining a guild or a society than becoming 'friends'. This online friendship is not Aristotle's friendship. But what is it?

First what is Aristotle's notion of friendship? (Book 4 Nichomachean Ethics).
Well the idea is, what good it is to have happiness and success if you have no friends to lavish gifts on, or friends to celebrate you. If you are unhappy friends give you support, if you are airing in your ethical conduct friends will shame you into acting correctly. Friendship is what binds you to society at large. It sort of presiages the panopticon. So how is this different from online friendship?

The main difference is transparency. Online friendship is not really the friendship between two people, but is more of a specticle - it is mediated friendship This is what we are really talking about. It is the impression of friendship and the acts of friendship in an open space so other 'friends' can see that you are friends with other people. This sort of relationship is mistakenly called friendships. Really it is more like social status. Now there is another measure to which people can be judged. With regards to money, position, and popularity.

As I get older I find Aristotle more and more interesting. This probably means that I am becoming more and more boring.
In any case, there are two points in Aristotle's Ethics that I think are applicable to the online community space.
1) Friendship - there are different kinds of friendships - not everyone can be friends in the same way,
2) Gifting - not everyone can bestow gifts (or rather not everyone ought to bestow gifts)

The gifting idea is more radical in a way - namely that the virtue of a gifter is in the size of the gift relative to his capacity to give it. So is it ethical for a journeyman programmer to 'gift' his code in an open source project. Or is it perhaps incorrect to think about open source as a gift economy. Rather the journeyman is paying his dues - in a guild type system - building up capital. Is open source programing really a gift economy. Am I giving a gift when I send someone a cow on facebook, or am I giving a gift when I share my photos? Am I giving a gift - or am I accruing social capital? What sort of transaction is this?

I used to like to say that Morgan Stanley (where I worked) operated on a gift economy. I would need something from the market data team and they would give it to me, even though they dont report to me, because I would give them a mexican interest rate model (for example). A gift though really is not something that should operate in an economy, but rather should be an end in itself, or rather for the glorification of the gift giver.

I suppose capitalism turns everything into a transaction. I dont know if this is good or bad - but it makes it difficult to produce heros in the classical greek sense.

This obviously needs to be fleshed out a bit - but it has already languished a week in my drafts folder so better blogged than nothing

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