The Increasing Impersonalization of the Internet
Excellent as always, Jeff. Your writing makes me think deeply and I appreciate that. As someone who has struggled over a lifetime to actually make friends, the word really is sacred to me, so thanks for articulating why it's so meaningful. Not everyone is my friend, and there truly are only a few of them deserving of the title.
I did find it ironic, though, that this appeared at the end of the piece:
"Invite your friends and earn rewards
If you enjoy The Ghost, share it with your friends and earn rewards when they subscribe."
In a piece where "friend" is redefined (or, at least returned to its pre-Internet definition) and "rewards" for doing something is frowned upon, this final bit made me truly laugh out loud.
Hey Jeff... Yep - we are not friends. This is an excellent piece. I first started following you when you had the Portfolio Life podcast. I found it and a few of your books super helpful as I was beginning to write my first novel around that time. I've stuck with you, always eager to read more. Part of this is that I find what you have to say is often compelling and honest, and a big part is simply how you write. It's just a joy to read. This particular piece hit me because I think a lot of people are longing for meaningful human connection and we've settled for way less, or we've commodified it. Mostly, though, I'm just saying I don't need to be your friend—I'm just glad I get to read what you share here.
I love everything about this article! I think the problem is language. Words have lost meaning. What does “friend” even mean? Work friend? Inner circle? Someone we once knew from high school but haven’t seen in decades? There are many words in Greek to describe different types of love. I think we need to do the same for friend. Great article.
I am enjoying living in England again after 20 years in the US and don’t miss the American inclination to monetize our friends. I am grateful to be in a place where people aren’t afraid to chat to each other at bus stops and on trains, and to be friendly without expectation.
Ahh good old technology has made everything so disingenuous. It's a blessing and a curse, really. It brings us together but not always with the right people!
This is gold. Definitely have had head-scratching moments where I've been pitched in my inbox and initiate a full-on conversation, only to connect with them on Linkedin and get pitched again. I feel the same about referring to your coworkers as a family (they are not), or associating communities with friendship.
The older I get, the more I realize I only have space for 3-5 people who allow me to come as I am vs. their preconceived notion of who I was in the past or could amount to in the future. That, to me, is true friendship.
I've come to think of the term "friend" as somewhat subjective. A professional acquaintance who I'd only conversed with on social media and sent a couple of cards greeted me like a long lost friend the first time we met at a conference he hosted. Like brands, friends - or the depth of friendship - are in the eye of the beholder. With deep, long-running relationships with people you see often (or maybe saw often in college), the friendship is clear. With infrequent or distant connections or those I've only met once or twice, I'm feeling more "warmed acquaintance."
Thanks, Jeff. Inspiring, even if the world you describe feels dystopian.
The thought I had throughout your article is 'inauthentic:' entire swathes of (usually) retail enterprise reek of inauthenticity. The 'growth mindset' which is pushed so aggressively, is, in most circumstances, less about growth and more about parasitism - cyborgs using a 'frictionless' medium to 'efficiently' sell more of [INSERT GOOD OR SERVICE HERE].
My goal is to spend my time with as many authentic businesses and people as possible. So today, I'll have a coffee at my local where I know the owner and shop for books at the store on Main St where I can interact with hard working, dedicated flesh and blood bibliophiles. I will only shop online for things I absolutely need (while checking inside myself to be sure this is a need and not a want).
The Bible nailed this long before Jeff Bezos sold his first book:
"Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight."
You don't need to believe in God to see how this is a feature, not a bug of civilisation.
Thanks for the insights and the clarity.
An interesting perspective. You and I have met and communicated, but yeah, I would hardly say we're friends. That's a not a negative for sure. And I do believe people use the term as a means of being polite more than anything else. I subscribe to a YouTube channel where the host starts off each video with "Hello, my friend!" Now we don't know each other other at all.
As to your example of the "How are you doing?" exchange, one of the better lessons I learned about friendship (and I cannot recall the origin) is the way you can show true friendship to someone, is when they're in trouble. When they're struggling. When they're having a difficult time. Instead of saying, "Let me know if you need anything." What you should ask is, "What do you need from me?" or "What can I do for you?"
I don't entirely dismiss the tangential "friendships" we have online as they can become real-life. Next week, my wife and I are renting a cabin in Shenandoah with 5 friends. One couple I met on Twitter over 10 years ago and they are now good friends. They live four hours away so we only get to spend time together a few times a year but its entirely worth it.
Right! It used to be, "The Internet is your friend!" Then it became "You can make friends through the Internet!" Sadly, I've found that neither of these things is a PERMANENT phenomena. People I knew 30+ years ago didn't transform into ultra-cool 21st century best pals...
As I read this post, I realize how incredibly misleading the internet can be especially to young folks who accept everything without criticizing it. So glad I bumped into this.
You're my best friend.
Jeff, I first started following you in 2012 when I embarked on my writing career and you had a writing blog. Before the books (I've read them all!) and Tribe Writers etc. I recently joined Substack and subscribed to this newsletter because it was recommended and seemed interesting. Imagine my surprise when I saw you're its author!
It's interesting to see you come full circle and feel similarly to me, as a content creator and entrepreneur who took a journey through content creation and being "relevant" on social media. And thinking the connections we made along the way were real and genuine, or if anything, pretending they were for the sake of doing what we thought we're supposed to do.
I can sense your jadedness and maturity. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's just how life works. Looking forward to reading you again!
Great post, Jeff. I don't think it is just the internet. It's capitalism. It is a zero-sum game, and when the knives are so sharpened, disingenuousness and contrived behaviour become the norm. Only labelled as great marketing. But definitely, the internet heightens it.
I still recall the anticipation in the early 90's, waiting for the internet to be available in my locale. I never in my life, thought of this side of it then. Exploitation is the downfall of too many good things.
I'm very much reminded of a certain character from Swan Song by Robert McCammon. The narration refers to him as a stranger, but when asked to introduce himself, the stranger says, "You can call me... Friend."
If that were a cheesy TV show, then that's when a crescendo of ominous music would play and then cut to commercial.
I'm not stuck on the friend label, though I respect that there's a real need for a meaningful distinction. I enjoy these articles and I don't have many real friends but I have these occasional very sincere (and admittedly sometimes entirely one-way) connections, and maybe that's not a friendship but it's not entirely meaningless to me either.
And now I'm very hyper aware of me using the word friend so next time I address people en masse I'm going to have to pick something else and I don't know why, but my first thought was 'fellow cultists'. Gonna have to think about this one.