False Friends

We’ve all seen it happen many times on the Internet. People with similar interests get together and form a community, sharing their ideas on how to change the world. They find solidarity, friendship, and a sense of purpose. They support each other in clashes with outside enemies, consisting of other groups that have different ideas about what the world ought to look like. The more they argue with their enemies, the more threatened and angry they feel. Factions develop within the community. Tempers flare.

Someone comes along who offers sympathy, concern, and just a few helpful suggestions for how the group might get along better. Using the familiar in-group buzzwords, the person appears genuine and friendly. It doesn’t take long before most people are convinced of the sincerity of these new efforts to build respect and trust within the community, while also reaching out to the enemy camp. After all, perhaps the group’s opponents just need a more understanding approach. Compromises start being made. There’s less conflict, but the original positions are no longer asserted as strongly as they once were.

After a while the community discovers that it was all a pretense—that the wonderful new broad-minded leader they’d come to trust was in the other camp all along, intentionally deceiving them. Maybe a message gets forwarded that was meant to stay private, or the person makes the mistake of letting things slip in an intemperate blog post or two. The people of the community feel outraged, wondering how they can ever trust anyone again after such a betrayal.

In Dan Haggard’s review of the movie The Social Network, which Mark Stairwalt discussed in his post two weeks ago, a provocative question is raised: Have today’s social and technological changes put us at risk of destroying authentic intimacy in our relationships? Haggard addresses the manipulation of social symbols:

“You are authentic when you don’t adopt signals that imply you to be something that you are not. With respect to the notion of intimacy, one is authentic when one actually is offering sincere intimacy…

The fact that there is no easy signalling process for intimacy doesn’t stop humans from trying to use it anyway. It’s natural to think that they would. Achieving that high level of trust is of immense value and benefit. If you can gain that trust on the cheap – if you can just insert a symbol that your target interprets as a signal of intimacy, then you gain a lot for little cost.”

In the modern world, marketing professionals perform detailed analyses of social signals and how they can be deployed to gain the public’s confidence. The public, in turn, has become increasingly suspicious of such trickery. Does this mean we’re doomed to end up in a world where none of us can ever trust one another or show our true selves?

I don’t foresee such a dismal future, for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s certainly nothing new about false friends. They’ve been around since antiquity, when Brutus assassinated his good friend Julius Caesar and the once-faithful disciple Judas handed over Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. It’s likely that people in ancient times, who lived in close-knit family groups and knew their neighbors well, considered such acts of betrayal to be far more horrific than we can imagine. Yet they remained able to form close bonds with one another, and society endured.

Long ago, social signals were much simpler than they are today. Everyone had their place and knew exactly what it was. To look authentic, one didn’t have to do much more than to meet the expectations for how a member of one’s social class ought to behave. That left room for all kinds of trickery. Cultural stories were simpler as well, making it easy for kings and warlords to convince their subjects that they had the divine favor of the gods, or some other convenient mythos. Although they didn’t have advanced technology, they could gain people’s confidence very effectively without it.

While it’s true that the Internet makes it easier to target false symbols at specific groups and subgroups, the flip side is that it’s also much easier to expose such fakery. When the evidence turns up in an e-mail or on a website, it’s all over the world instantly. Yes, it’s possible that the manipulations enabled by modern technology may cause us to lose trust in one another, leading to the dismal future envisioned in Haggard’s article. But there’s an equally plausible argument to be made that we are heading toward a future where everyone will have to be their authentic selves at all times because deception will have become nearly impossible.

on 03/23/11 in featured, Internet | 3 Comments | Read More

Comments (3)


  1. Stephanie says:

    I suspect human ingenuity won’t allow for either extreme for very long. While some technology makes false intimacy easier, other technologies make genuine intimacy easier to maintain.

    While individuals seem given to polar extremes, people as a whole are not. If we lose too much trust, we’ll invent ways to secure trust. If we lose too much artifice, we’ll invent ways to secure artifice.

    Not everyone will participate in either direction, of course. But the people who’s worldviews involve a need for artifice are going to find a way to get it; just like those who need intimacy are going to find a way to get it.

    Technology changes how we do things and how much we can do, but some fundamentals of who we are stay constant regardless of the technology we have or don’t have.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    I like your way of looking at it, Stephanie. You may well be right about that.

  3. Michelle says:

    People online, normal people, most likely do not care about you. They seem to want high rank though so they will often pretend to care, it’s a reverse form of control, they put themselves in a position of the helper, or the people pleaser. Often this is sub-conscious and as soon as they rally a support group, they quickly change colors and get a bit more cocky and abusive or intolerant of new comers because they have established a rank and fear losing their social position in the online community. It’s much more apparent online than IRL because like you say, there are key words and symbols. “Non-attached love and light” is one of them, or “Namaste” to sound like a wise sage. It’s really annoying if you are involved in it, but it’s just funny if you look at it and don’t get involved with the people. I seem to be invisible though, and while it is annoying to see them all jerk each other off, it’s like watching chimps groom themselves. You gotta ask yourself, “Do I really care what these people think?” If they are manipulating each other for an ego boost, it’s really sad but you can’t change the system.

Leave a Reply