Social media has changed the way we make friends, and how we interact with the ones we already have. We’ve all got that old school friend who has a social media split personality, the colleague who overshares, or the introvert acquaintance who comes alive on the Internet. Although these days, we might be more conscious about who we add and accept into our online lives, there’s no doubt that our behaviour on social media affects our real life relationships.
Recent psychological studies have proven that our friendships are affected by the way we interact with each other online. On average, regular Facebook users have 155 ‘friends’, but would only rely on 4 of those in a time of need. So how many of those people you follow are really your friends?
More than a decade after Facebook took control of friendship, a photographer from Maine has been finding out. Tanja Hollander has spent the last six years investigating this millennial phenomenon by meeting her online friends IRL. “I was home alone on NYE of 2010/11, instant messaging a friend working on a film in Jakarta and simultaneously hand writing a friend, deployed in Afghanistan,” Hollander recalls. “I started thinking about those two friendships from really different parts of my life, and the two ways of communicating.”
She decided to see how she could address those differences in her work as a photographer and contacted very person she was friends with on Facebook (626 people) to ask if she could visit them and home and take their picture. This week, at MASS MoCA, she will reveal the results: portraits of 451 people, taken in 180 places. Those who didn’t take part (175 people) either declined the request, or didn’t show up. 67 Facebook ‘friends’ didn’t respond to her message.
For those Hollander did meet, the experience was often surprising. “I was continually blown away by the kindness and generosity of so many people welcoming me into their homes and lives. Taking me to see music, or art, to parks and their favourite dive bars, introducing me to friends and family.”
Though none of the people she met were complete strangers, Hollander says her time with her friends built on the relationships she had already established online. “I definitely got to know them better, and for sure became friends with some of them.” She decided to shoot her subjects in the intimacy of their own homes to represent the idea of familiarity. Her photographs present the idea that we don’t always know who are ‘friends’ are, nor what the reality of their private lives might be.
So what has she learnt from the project? “Social media is just another way of communicating – much like a phone call or text,” she explains. “Especially for someone like me, whose friends are scattered all over the place. We weave in and out of each others lives at different times for different reasons; some friends I see music with, some I talk about photography with, some I talk about sex with. It’s not just one person who defines friendship, the multitude of people in my life are important for different reasons.”
The portraits will be presented alongside video and travelogues, and an interactive element where visitors can describe what friendship means to them.Funnily enough, the artist will be watching the whole thing from the comfort of her own home. “What a gift to be able to sit in my studio in Maine and see what’s happening and engage with visitors at the museum via Instagram through hashtags and geolocation.”