Nicomachean Ethics and Social Networks
December 14, 2011
At first glance, Computer Science and Philosophy seem unrelated. According to Wikipedia, Computer Science is the study of the theoretical foundations of information and computation while Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems. However, as Computer Science has grown, the scope of problems that Computer Science aims to solve has grown from simple record keeping and number crunching to problems that do not have a cut and dry answer. One example of this, and the focus of this paper, is the Social Network. With the dawn of Web 2.0, Social Networks have been migrating ever closer to the center of the Internet. Computer Scientists have either embraced or rejected the concept, but as a whole, it looks like Social Networks are here to stay. I believe that everyone in Computer Science, specifically those who work with Social Networks, need to read books VIII and IX of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The definition of "friend" has been expanded to include an ever increasing amount of individuals. Instead of this growing definition of "friend", Social Networks should implement structures to allow for a greater division between types of friends, assist in the management of friends, and actively work to strengthen relationships. After reading sections VIII and IX of Nicomachean Ethics, I came up with my own ideas how Social Networks can be improved and I present them here. Being as Aristotle is the philosopher here and I am not, I do not claim that these ideas are the word of Aristotle, but rather they are examples of how Social Networks could be enhanced by implementing the ideas of Aristotle.
Whether Aristotle would have found Social Networks agreeable is a whole different subject. Social communities look very different today than they did during Aristotle’s time. In today’s world, friends are really only a pleasantry. In the days of Aristotle, friends spent most of their time together; they did activities together, shared the same tastes, and even shared common goals. Aristotle argues that everyone needs friends, however, in the individualistic society that we live in, they are not as much of a necessity as they were in the group-minded culture that Aristotle lived in.
Looking back on where Social Networks have been, there have been many conceptual revisions that have changed the way Friends interact socially. Most of these changes are congruent with Nicomachean Ethics. The Social Networks that will be discussed in order to build a sense of how Social Networks have progressed are MySpace, Facebook, and Google+. Each Social Network will be seen as an evolution of the last — MySpace as an evolution of Friendster, Facebook as an evolution of MySpace, and Google+ as an evolution of Facebook. I could go all the way back to GeoCities, but concept of real-world friends wasn’t implemented until Friendster and wasn’t improved upon at all in early iterations of MySpace.
With the introduction of Social Networks, the term “friend” has grown to encompass pretty much anyone who will accept your “friend request”. With how easy it is to create and accept these requests — and since we try not to offend their senders by declining them — “friend” now also includes mere acquaintances. A friend, however, is a relationship that is closer than just an associate. By lumping all of ones connections together in a pool called a “Friend List”, one is forced to either care about all of their connections, or none of them. If the early creators of Social Networks had read book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, a different term than “friend” most likely would have been used to represent connections and there would have probably been more tools to separate different levels of friends.
MySpace had a single list where all of ones friends resided and the only option for distinguishing close friends was the “Top 8” — eight friends the user got to designate for display on their profile. The ability to separate friends into groups was one of the earlier additions to Social Networks, but the ability to filter feeds based on these groups has been only a recent feature in Facebook. Google+, currently, appears to be the best at creating a division over different types of friends by forcing users to classify their connections as they add them. Google+ also was careful to avoid the word “friend” but instead calls other users “people” and has you map them into circles.
Aristotle defines three different types of friends: a friend for the sake of utility, a friend for the sake of pleasure, and a friend for the sake of good. A friend for the sake of utility is a friendship based on the exchange of goods or services. These friendships last only as long the usefulness of both parties. A friend for the sake of pleasure is a friend who is enjoyable to be with. These friendships last as long as both find each other’s company pleasant. Both of these previous types of friendships, however, aren’t truly friendships and only cheap analogues to the best form of friendship which is a friend for the sake of good. These friends wish well for each other and strive to bring out the goodness in each other. Since goodness is “an enduring thing”, these friendships are nearly permanent.
Social Networks would do well to implement these ideas more fully into their current systems. In Aristotle’s day, however, whole communities were tight-nit groups and one did everything with their group of friends. The concept of having different circles of friends was not as commonplace as it is today.
While I appreciate Google+’s approach of mapping out ones different circles of friends, I believe that they should implement the idea of different levels of friendship on top of circles. In this respect, I must applaud one of the recent changes to Facebook that added a “Close Friends” group which will notify you of your friend’s status changes so you can keep tabs on and presumably — if Social Networks fulfill the goal of bringing friends closer together — create more points of interaction and strengthen relationships. I believe it would be wise for Google+ to follow suit by allowing friends to be tagged as close friends, friends, and mere acquaintances while adjusting the importance of each levels updates accordingly. Even if Google+ insists on using circles for this sort of tagging as well — their current plan of action and a little hackish in my opinion — they at least need to implement the ability to be notified of updates in specified circles.
Managing friends is a little harder than pruning your iTunes library. Unlike pirated .mp3s, people get offended when they are deleted. Sadly, this leads to a Friends List of pretty much everyone that one has ever said “hi” to. As the amount of people on one’s Friends List that one does not care about increases, the odds of them being inundated with updates that he or she does not care about, in turn, increases — exponentially in most cases. Though Aristotle does not address this problem directly, in book IX he does talk about breaking off friendships and whether we should make as many friends as possible.
Social Networks have always had the oversight to not inform those who have been “unfriended” that they have been unfriended. Probably the only reason someone accepted the friend request of someone they are now unfriending was to avoid conflict, and alerting the other party of the “friendship’s” undoing is a sure way to hurt someone’s feelings. In MySpace and Facebook, though, it’s still not untraceable. Especially if the person who is being unfriended doesn’t feel the same way about the relationship as the unfriender does — that is to say, the unfriended person believes that they are not just friends of utility or pleasure — the unfriended person may notice the lack of updates and find that the unfriender isn’t on their Friends List anymore. To avoid this Google+ deals with friends differently: when a person is added to a circle, a notification is sent to them about it and they can either choose to add the adder back, or ignore it. When a user posts an update, on a per update basis they can choose who can read the post based on the circles that they have. This way, the person who was added, even if they have not added the other person back can read the other’s updates, allowing for the removal of “Friend Requests”. When removing someone from ones circles, the removed is not notified, and in fact has no way of knowing they’ve been removed. In fact, if the remover posts his or her updates to his or hers extended circles, the removed may even continue to receive updates from the remover.
There has, since the beginning of Social Networks, been this question of whether or not someone can have too many friends. To this question, Social Networks seem to encourage large Friend Lists. Facebook especially by constantly bombarding its users with the “People You May Know” section. If a user has a large amount of friends, however, what is the best way to deal with them? MySpace did not have any systems in place; Facebook continually revises its system, but currently, it determines how active individual updates are and crosses that with who it thinks the friends you actually care about are and returns a list of “Highlighted Stories”; and Google+ does not do anything, but rather insists that you filter your feed by your circles if updates from all of your circles become too much.
When it comes to breaking off friendships, Aristotle is not as black and white as usual. He states that it should be fine to break off friendships of utility or pleasure. If the other party mistook the relationship for being more than it was, they have only themselves to blame, but if they were deceived, they have every right to complain. There is, however, some leeway when dealing with old friendships; one may not be expected to continue being friends with someone he or she has outgrown in virtue — the example that Aristotle gives is that of a childish friendship where one friend remains a child in intellect while the other one developed into an adult — because neither parties would share the same delights or interests; however, because they shared a former friendship and because we should oblige our friends, some leeway should be given to the less virtuous friend as long as that allowance is not exceeded by wickedness. Short of having all of their visitors read Aristotle, though, it would be extremely difficult to implement these ideas into Social Networks. Because it takes no work to keep connections open, most people get offended when they are unfriended — no matter how small the relationship. With this in mind, it seems impossible to keep from getting a massive friends list.
That is unless we go forward with creating a separation between good friends and mere connections. Aristotle places no limit on the number of friends one should have as long as all of those friends are for the sake of utility or pleasure. When it comes to good friends, however, we should only have as many as we can live together with. By “live” Aristotle means spending time together. Assuming that divisions among friends are implemented, it would seem natural to impose a limit on the number of “Close Friends” a person can have. The limit is debatable because, as Aristotle implicitly says, it should be different for everybody. In my opinion, it should be no greater than ten and no less than five, maybe eight — being reminiscent of MySpace. Either way, that number is up for further scrutiny and philosophy; Aristotle’s work only suggests that there should be one. A limit would keep this sub-list of good friends from getting out of hand, like the current friends list has. This way we can keep all of our connections and in the privacy of our monitors, differentiate between the good friends and everyone else.
In their current state, Social Networks seem more geared towards being a form of online entertainment while giving us a sense of human interaction. Whatever their goal may be, it seems like it is currently in their best interest to keep everyone in front of their news feeds, instead of with their friends, in order to increase ad revenue. This is true, at least, of MySpace and Facebook — Google, being Google already gets enough ad revenue from the rest of the Internet. Still, all three seem to want to replace your free time with sharing and link-following.
While it is true that you can share events over Social Networks, the only reason why Social Networks are better at invitations is because they are checked more often than email, again, because they seem to be interested in having you constantly on. Event Invitations are also impersonal and are usually only sent out to when to a group of people instead of just a select few. When setting up smaller activities, Social Networks are only as effective as a telephone.
Aristotle says that one of the marks of friendship is that friends live together. In Aristotle’s time, friends did everything together. This included sharing the same hobbies, goals, dreams, and such. In my humble opinion, I believe that Aristotle would be appalled by the idea of Social Networks unless they actively tried to strengthen friendships. As this is not the case, Aristotle would find that Social Networks drive a wedge in between us and our friends by placing a layer between us which makes us feel connected even though we are miles apart.
Though it may be creepy at first, and is a form of targeted advertising, I believe that Social Networks should suggest things for friends to do. It would not be too hard to take the people on someone’s Close Friends list, find similar likes, and pull an ad from a list of local activities, possibly adding in a coupon deal. Between Facebook and Google+, the Social Network that would have the easiest time implementing a system like this would be Facebook since they’ve gone to great lengths to find out what everybody “Likes”, and they already do targeted advertising based on those likes; all they would have to do is add another option. Google, on the other hand has a wealth of information on each of their users and has already implemented targeted advertising over the whole Internet through their AdSense system; and, with Google’s new Google Offers — their Groupon style coupon system — finding local advertisers and coupons to power the feature would be a piece of cake. Being, as it is, a form of highly targeted advertising, these Social Networks would in fact probably earn just as much by suggesting that friends actually do things together, thus strengthening these friendships and making Social Networks in Aristotle’s eyes — if not perfect — at the very least acceptable.
So far, I have shown how the ideas found in books VIII and IX of Nicomachean ethics can be applied to Social Networks in order to be more focused on good friends rather than friends of utility, or pleasure, or even just connections. While I hope that the changes I have suggested and the ideas which they have been contrived from are agreeable, some may argue that the ideas of this two thousand year old philosopher no longer apply to today’s society. However, friends were more important in the group-minded community that Aristotle was part of, and by this reason, I argue that the text is made relevant. Because there was such an importance placed on friendship, the subject found itself in a book on ethics. If we take these serious ideas about friendship and map them onto our much lighter definition of friend, we end up with much stronger friendships than any that are based on modern ideas. The very fact friendship was more vital in Aristotle’s time means that Aristotle is more qualified to analyze the many facets of friendship than anyone in today’s culture.
Social Networks sell themselves as being “a place for friends”, but according to Aristotle, they could be doing a lot better. Instead of strengthening our friendships, they merely use our friends as a form of entertainment. While they may claim to be a way to connect with friends, they just drive a wedge of impersonality between us and our friends by making it easier to contact each other through less personal forms of communication. On top of that, most of our “friends” are people who we aren’t close enough to to be a friendship in any of the flavors that Aristotle outlines. I believe Social Networks have problems in how they define friends, how these friends are managed, and how they are geared towards captivating their users instead of connecting their users outside of the Social Network. By reading books VIII and IX, I easily came up with three ideas on how Social Networks can be improved in order to be more cohesive to cultivating and building strong friendships. These ideas were in no way passed down by Aristotle, himself, but extrapolated from ideas he had a couple thousand years ago. If all of the computer scientists who build and maintain Social Networks were to read and incorporate the ideas of friendship by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, we would have functionally better Social Networks. Even though others may not come up with the same ideas that I have produced by reading this piece of philosophy, they will come to understand the three types of friends, as well as the importance of spending time together in person. Whether I, or even Aristotle, agree with the formation of Social Networks is irrelevant. Social networks have worked themselves so deeply into our society that the question no longer is whether they should or should not be, but rather how we can make them better.
This article was originally written by Oscar Marshall as an assignment for college. He had me proofread it and I was so impressed that I have decided to make it available here.
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