Ethics of Friendship Online

In the course of researching social media for my first research paper due in my Legal & Ethical Issues in IT class, I came across the journal Ethics and Information Technology1. This journal had a special issue called Friendship Online2 published in 2012. I found many of the papers published there interesting, as I am fascinated by how normal human interactions translate to the digital world.

The paper I found the most informative was Flourishing on facebook: virtue friendship & new social media3 which discussed how the Aristotelian theory of friendship can be used to evaluate friendships on social media, and the merits of social media itself. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, so please read it yourself if you can. However, considering current events I want to excerpt one bit I found particularly relevant and enlightening:

Human flourishing is a social achievement that entails habitually and skillfully engaging with others in rational enquiry with respect to our beliefs, desires, commitments, and life projects, and manifests the core Aristotelian virtue of phronesis through which the other virtues are intelligently expressed. (NE 1145a) Yet, given the dominant cultural values and economic priorities of technologically-driven societies, it is unclear whether new social media will ever be widely used to promote such enquiry. Facebook users of a philosophical bent are likely to find that, in comparison to photos, video links and ‘bad day’ updates, posts intended to initiate thoughtful critical discussion of such matters are typically met with a few brief and hurried replies, snarky humor, or deafening silence.

Yet it would be a mistake to lay blame for this at Facebook’s feet; the problem is merely a technological reification of a tendency already pervasive in our culture, a culture in which discussions of one’s religion, politics, scientific beliefs or moral commitments are increasingly marginalized from public spaces—pushed out of our workplace, our dinner table, our holiday parties and our weekend picnics, lest serious questions or contentious issues mar our congenial, lighthearted exchanges. As a consequence, visible public discussion of such matters is now dominated by those largely indifferent to the preferences of others, the ‘cranks’ or ‘nutjobs’ who fill the comment sections on news websites with hostile or uninformed rants, ‘that guy’ who ruins every dinner party by bringing up gay marriage or climate change, or the ‘idiot relative’ whose tiresome political posts we’ve quietly ‘hidden’ on our Facebook NewsFeed so as to make his views invisible while avoiding the injury of a conspicuous ‘defriending’. Thus we must be aware that whatever defects new social media may suffer, they are likely more often mirrors of existing cultural sources of moral apathy, and abdication of critical inquiry, than they are causes.

I have experienced the effects of this culture firsthand, whether on Facebook itself or various discussion platforms I help moderate. A few attempts have been made to ameliorate this, but none successful. I wonder:

What steps can everyday social media users take to combat such a culture? What role should companies play (if any) to promote such valuable critical inquiry?


Links for Illinois Tech students to bypass paywall

  1. http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/journal/10676
  2. http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/journal/10676/14/3/page/1
  3. http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/article/10.1007/s10676-010-9262-2
 
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