PARIS — Are my hundred friends really my friends? When we ask philosopher André Comte-Sponville, who has written extensively about friendship, whether he has a circle of friends online, he answers sharply about his almost immediate disillusionment with social media.

“My children created, without consulting me before, a Facebook page for me. Once they did, I received three messages from people I didn’t know asking me to be their friends. I felt it was an unbearable intrusion and a complete misinterpretation of friendship. I immediately closed down my page.”

Relationships that are formed on social networks are “superficial,” he says. “They have nothing to do with the ‘sovereign and perfect friendship’ Michel de Montaigne spoke of, the one he had with Étienne de La Boétie.” 

Compared to that kind of rare and passionate friendship, the networks of a hundred “friends” or more Facebook and other social networks offer seem overabundant and unaccomplished to him. “A real friendship cannot expand infinitely,” Comte-Sponville says. “Aristotle used to say, ‘A friend to all is a friend to none,’ and the same goes, I would add, for he who is friends with a multitude of people. Friendship implies too much trust, sincerity, intimacy — and time! — for it to be shared with so many people.” 

The philosopher concedes that it’s better to have virtual friends than none of all. “But it would be dangerous to content ourselves with it. A few real friends are worth hundreds of virtual friends on Facebook.”

Not a universal view

In other words, Comte-Sponville sums up well the circumspection among parents, pediatricians, philosophers and others about social networks such as Facebook, Google +, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram or LinkedIn. 

But researchers and intellectuals are becoming increasingly enthusiastic. Philosopher Anne Dalsuet — who last year wrote an essay entitled Are You On Facebook? What Do Social Networks Change For Friendship? — doesn’t agree with the idea that friendship is necessarily rare and that virtual relations exist in opposition to the real world.

“The opinion that online friendship is artificial seems outdated,” she says. “Nowadays, with mobile Internet, millions of people live in constant proximity with their close friends and family. It’s a form of intimacy that is maintained remotely. These relationships prolong and reinforce already existing friendships.”

A new “emotional chronology” based “on immediacy and dialogue” has established itself via social networks, Dalsuet observes. “Sociability isn't limited to face-to-face interactions anymore. Everyone finds himself immersed at the heart of a virtual community of loved ones, living with them in a real digital co-existence,” Dalsuet adds.

Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron, a specialist in adolescence, offers a similar analysis. “Physical presence is not the only reference anymore, or even the main one, for those who gather on social networks,” Tisseron says. “For younger generations, online chats are absolutely real and emotionally charged. As a matter of fact, Facebook has even changed the traditional teenage angst. Nowadays, young people lead a parallel life in community via their computers. There they create their own network of friends, a sort of new family.”

In his books What Is Virtual? (1995) and Cyberculture (1997), philosopher Pierre Lévy argues that virtual worlds offer many possibilities — "virtual" also means "potential", after all. The fact that computers are interactive, unlike television screens, has transformed yesterday’s viewers into fervent Internet users, turning individuals into broadcasters and content producers. “Why restrict what’s real to solid, visible bodies?” Lévy argues. 

Lévy, like Dalsuet, believes that the idea of the virtual and real worlds somehow competing is outdated. Especially because online interaction, coupled with geolocation, enables users to find each other physically at any moment, making it easier to see friends in the flesh. With cellphones, tablets and Skype, our online life is more like an “augmented reality” than something altogether separate, Lévy says.

What of insincerity?

Stéphane Vial, author of The Being and The Screen: How The Digital World Changes Our Perception, says the creators of Facebook won a bold gamble by using “friendship” as currency. “Initially, it was about developing links between students, but then they wanted to provoke a stronger, more emotional kind of bonding, and history proved them right,” Vial says. “Users rushed in and invented all sorts of relationships, from simple chumminess to close ties.”

When we present him with Aristotle’s argument of authentic friendship, Vial bristles. “But what does Aristotle tell us? That friendship is an emotional relationship that is ‘necessary to live’ and that it is important for social cohesion. It seems to me that social networks demonstrate in the most breathtaking manner that Aristotle was right. Everywhere around the world, ‘friends’ of all sorts gather online, get to know each other, get closer to one another, and meet for drinks. Why should meeting somebody by chance in a bar, like it used to be before the days of the Internet, be the only way of building a real relationship with somebody?”

Anne Dalsuet see a quest for sincerity in the fact that most users of these networks keep a space and message service that is private, where only a small number of people are allowed. Many also use these services to look for lost childhood buddies or first loves, proof of a willingness to maintain and renew non-artificial relationships.

The website Facebook Stories, featuring “people using Facebook in extraordinary ways,” shows how the social network can at times help people reconstitute their emotional world and rebuild friendships. 

Mayank Sharma, a young man from India suffering from tuberculous meningitis, suffered from memory loss. But by chatting online with friends and with his parents, he managed to recover fragments from his past and rebuild a personality.

Sylvie, a divorced mother of two, started looking for her first love, Serge, whom she had met when she was 15. She did find him, and they’re now living together.

Not just for friends

Of course, you are not going to find on that website the stories of “friends” who spread devastating rumors or tried to destroy somebody’s reputation. Nor will you read there the fierce criticism of social networks — for example, American writer Jonathan Franzen’s September 2013 Guardian piece entitled “What’s Wrong With The Modern World.” In it, he slams the overconsumption of addictive and alienating technology.

Also absent are essays written by psychologist Jean M. Twenge — author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic — who sees social networks as accomplices to egotistic narcissistic promotion. 

But British anthropologist Daniel Miller seems to side with defenders of socials networks. In his book, Tales from Facebook, he studied users from the island of Trinidad, near Venezuela. In Santa Ana, an isolated village beset by tensions between neighbors, young people became closer thanks to Facebook and were thus able to help each other with homework or play together online, despite ancient family disputes.

In Tunapuna, a small town where everyone tended to keep to themselves, Facebook allowed people to multiply friendly exchanges. According to Miller, social networks have escaped their creators’ clutches and now belong to the communities that have proven wrong those who claimed that relationships with friends and communities would deteriorate due to consumption, high tech and individualism.

But friendships are not the only kind of relationship to have taken new forms thanks to social networks and connectivity. Relationships between supposed enemies, or even between rival societies, have also seen dramatic changes. For instance, in March 2012, Pushpin Mehina — an Israeli whose real name name is Ronny Edry — created a Facebook page showing a photo of him with his daughter. Its caption reads: “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We love you.”

To this day, the page “Israel-Loves-Iran” has 120,323 “likes.”