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What is a Friend? A Metric, a Commodity or a Real Person?

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My 7-year-old daughter was playing Club Penguin the other day, and I caught her on the phone trying to get one of her school friends to find her in one of the rooms of the multi-player online game. First, I was surprised to see her on a computer and on the phone at the same time. Next, as I observed in the background, I heard her say, "Yes, friend me!" Magically, a number in the upper right hand corner box on the screen went from 7 to 8.

I scratched my head a moment and asked her to stop the game. She paused it and said, "Yes, Daddy?"

"Who are the other seven friends in your friend box?" I asked her.She said they were her game friends. I asked if she knew them from school, and she said no.

I then asked her to take a walk with me so we could talk about the meaning of the word "friend." I showed her my hand and told her that the Finnish people believe you can only have five friends -- five real, true friends. I explained to her that a friend is someone who will pick you up when you fall off your bike, someone who helps you with your homework, someone who listens to you when you've been scolded by your parents. That is what a true friend is.

"Daddy, does that mean I should delete my friends on the game?"

I am not a daily Facebook user, but I do have "friends," and it seems that being "liked" is a metric and a commodity that is in demand. I fear that our children are witnessing the erosion of the true meaning of the words "friend" and "like." They are metrics in the online world, not meaning in the real world. Reality is being suffocated by surreality and their understanding of friends boils down to not the importance of that friend, but rather the number of them. Quantity is trumping quality. The quantified-self movement is all about numbers and trends. I proclaim we start a Real Friend Movement. Let's call a spade a spade and a friend a friend -- we have real friends and then we have digital friends -- and the difference is important. I would hate to see such an important word and core social glue become less sticky.