Are Facebook friends true friends? It depends on what you mean by “friend”.
- Friendship based on utility.
- Friendship based on pleasure.
- Friendship based on virtue.
Friendship based on utility is friendship that is useful for each of the parties. For example, my students often have this sort of relationship with one another. Two students might sit next to each other in class, and share notes with one another when they miss a day. If this is the extent of their relationship, they have friendship based on utility. In such a relationship, when the usefulness ends, the friendship ends. There is nothing wrong with this kind of friendship, necessarily, as long as there is respect and mutuality, but it does not endure because the usefulness does not endure.
Friendship based on pleasure occurs when I enjoy the company of another person. Perhaps she is funny, or he is enjoyable to be around for some other reason. In such a relationship, when the pleasure ends, the friendship ends as well.
Friendship based on virtue is the highest form of friendship, according to Aristotle. Here, the two people are both good, that is, they are morally virtuous individuals. Each loves what is good in himself, and what is good in his friend. In loving a friend one loves what is good for oneself, because these types of friends assist each other in living a virtuous life. They have a shared vision of a good and fulfilling human life, and help each other in their pursuit of such a life. Such a relationship requires time, familiarity, trust, mutual goodwill, and, of course, virtue. This kind of friendship is also pleasant and useful, but in the right way. So friendship based on virtue, “perfect friendship”, as Aristotle calls it, encompasses the other two species, but in the right way. This kind of friendship endures, because goodness endures.
Are Facebook friends true friends? It depends on what you mean by “friend”. Clearly we can have friendships based on utility and pleasure via Facebook. But what about friendships based on virtue? I’m skeptical that we can, if Facebook is the only means by which we relate to another person. Given all that this highest form of friendship requires, it seems to me that some real (rather than merely virtual) contact is required. In this kind of friendship, the friends “do life” together, and this is tricky to accomplish via status updates.
If you are interested in reading more about Facebook and friendship from a variety of perspectives, the newly published book Facebook and Philosophy has several chapters on this issue (NFI, by the way).