Facebook “friends” and the meaning of words on the web

Posted: July 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

This is somewhat connected to my earlier post about naming and linking. But I want to make a different point about the use of ordinary expressions on the web. Contextuality (the situation in which an expression is being used and who uses it) is an important issue in language in and outside the web. As it has sometimes been noticed, the sense of words on the web is different from their ordinary sense. Their scope, the domain of objects they refer to, is usually more narrow than in ordinary life. In the course of browsing the internet we get used to such reductions: browsing refers not to lazily shopping, but to a certain web-based activity.  Whenever we read “twitter” on the internet, we think of the website rather than this.

“Connection” in ordinary life is a much larger expression than on social networks like hypios, Xing or LinkedIn. In ordinary talk there is “a connection between New York and Paris”, “a connection between the expressions ‘art’ and ‘artificial’ etc.”. On hypios there are only “Connections between Solvers”. The scope of the expression “connection” on hypios is more narrow than in ordinary talk.

But sometimes it’s the opposite: on facebook, “friend” has a larger scope than in ordinary life. Most of my facebook-friends are not what I would call “friends” when speaking to a real-world connection. Many of my friends now use expressions like “one of my facebook friends”. But they might end up getting tired of that. If facebook is as successful as they want it to be, language will evolve. In a few years, the web-sense of “friend” might be the prime one – at least among younger people.

It will have been a long way from Aristotle’s idea that “friends have to live under the same roof” to the hundreds of new friends we connect to every year.

(N.B. An earlier version of this post was published on – the now defunct? – Bigstartups.com)

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