Are Your Facebook Friends Really Your Friends?

Apr 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 9:51 am

The new issue of The Atlantic asks: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? The jury's out, though signs point to maybe.

Facebook didn't necessarily make Tanja Hollander lonely, per se, but it did make her curious. It was a little over two years ago when she looked at that number representing "friends," 626 in her case, and started to analyze it.

"What I found were some people I hadn't met in 'real life'; a few people I was not speaking to in 'real life'; ex-lovers with new partners; ex-partners of friends; art dealers, curators and high school friends who I hadn't seen in over 20 years," she writes on her website.

And she wondered: How many of those are actual friends, in the conventional sense?

"I set out to find the answer, using the only tool I know — photography," she writes.

Since then, Hollander has been on a mission to photograph every person that was included in that number at that time. (Of course, the number has changed a bit since then; she has made new friends, especially over the course of this project. But she also affirms that she hasn't cheated, despite how awkward it can get.) She's already shot about a third and plans to keep chipping away until it's done.

"I started the project a bit cynical, [thinking]: 'There's no way these people will give a sh - - about me,' " she says on the phone. "I think we all feel that way about Facebook at times."

But her friends, whether "real," "virtual" or somewhere at the cross-section, have been enthusiastic about the project.

Hollander cites a recent example: One Facebook acquaintance, whom she had added as a professional contact — and didn't necessarily consider a "real life" friend — opened her apartment to Hollander as a place to crash for a week, no questions asked.

"I have been so surprised at how generous people have been," she says. Apparently all it takes is some face time to make Facebook friendships real.

And, unlike a lot of us, Hollander has had that luxury of face time, with the financial backing of various sponsors, including the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

She hasn't gone the cheap route, either. Oddly enough, this project about digital culture is all shot on film. Or maybe it's not so odd. Real, tangible film might be the metaphor for real, tangible friends: There's a permanence and heft to it, though it's slightly more inconvenient.

"With the ease and popularity of family photography into the 20th century, the formal nature of portraits diminished," she writes in a project statement. "The traditional family portrait has begun to disappear."

So Hollander is interested in the individuals that add up to 626; but she's also intrigued by the environments that shape the individuals. The houses they live in; the tables they sit at; the couches they lounge on together, in real time.

"In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society," Stephen Marche writes in The Atlantic. "We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are."

On the other hand, even Hollander, who started out skeptical, touts the benefits of social media, which she uses increasingly to promote the project.

"Facebook isn't a substitute for real relationships," she says, "but it's a way to start connections."

What Hollander's photos reveal is that she lives in Portland, Maine, and is an active member of the art community there. That many of her friends are from college; many others are friends through friends. If you were to take a snapshot of your Facebook friends, what would it look like? And how awkward would the process be?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.