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Public debate: What does it mean to be 'friends' in these daze of social networking?

The other night, while walking past Cafe deux Soleil on the Drive, I bumped into a man who looked strangely familiar... "Andrew?" I asked, reaching to shake hands. "I'm Hilary Henegar.
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The other night, while walking past Cafe deux Soleil on the Drive, I bumped into a man who looked strangely familiar...

"Andrew?" I asked, reaching to shake hands. "I'm Hilary Henegar. I think we're Facebook friends!"

Sure, for some, this kind of thing would never happen, but for many of us of a certain age and persuasion, who increasingly use social media to address needs well beyond the scope of its original invention - as a social calendar, for community organizing, for networking, as a RSS feed, to discover new music, and so on - such scenes are commonplace.

Though we’d never met before this moment, through Facebook Andrew and I have access to each other's vacation photos, can exchange links on various issues of mutual interest and receive notice of one another's birthday. I know who he hangs out with and he knows my political leanings. Yet until that moment we’d never met face to face. Yes, grandma, there exists a space in which I can be "friends" with someone whom I’ve never actually met. And all by virtue of a little bot that takes orders from an algorithm, which, everyday for months, would flash Andrew’s face on the righthand side of my screen as “People You May Know” until finally, my interest piqued, I clicked on the prompt: “Add Friend.” It was that easy.

That we could be defined as "friends" is a funny thing, indicative of the times in which we live. Nestled within the common usages of the word are clues revealing truths about the very nature of human relationship, today and in the past. In these daze of social media, what is a “friend”? Who makes the cut? And are the rules that govern networked friendship the same as those IRL (in real life)? Do “friendships” that start first on Facebook devalue the very notion of friendship? Or, are we entering a new era of expanded notions around fraternity and community?

Such is the topic of interest this coming Monday, June 18, at SOCIAL NETWORKS: HUMANIST MODELS FOR MODERN PRACTICES?, a free public debate that asks panelists representing academia and public media to consider the evolving nature of friendship, both in the context of social media and from a historical perspective. Presented by SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit, the University of Victoria, the French Consulate and the Or Gallery, four panelists look at the history of the word in Western Culture and consider its utility during periods of revolution, nation building and cultural prosperity, when “friendship” may not have been purely the domain of chums but a mechanism for defining and redefining the political structures that give shape to our roles as citizens.

via Flickr.com / chhbolt

SFU film professor Colin Browne moderates what will surely be a fascinating discussion, with panelists Françoise Waquet, director of Research on History of Knowledge at the CNRS in Paris as well as a scholar of learned networks in Early Modern Europe (and a guest-lecturer invited by the French Consulate in Vancouver); longtime CBC Radio reporter and producer Theresa Lalonde, who has been involved in CBC’s social media training and strategy and done extensive coverage of social media's impact on Vancouver; James D. Fleming, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, where he teaches Renaissance literature and hermeneutic theory; and Hélène Cazes, associate professor in French and Medieval Studies at the University of Victoria, who has spent recent years researching public declarations of friendship in 16th century war-stricken Europe.

Standing as we do in a time marked by rapid technological innovation and hyper-connectivity, it is hard not to marvel at the extraordinary capacity of social networking tools for social transformation - a moment in time no less notable to that surrounding the invention of the printing press or the automobile. Whether these tools were developed to satisfy something innate to human society or something more specific to the right-here-right-now will be up to the panelists to debate.

After the event, please join me at W2 Media Cafe for a “friendly” conversation inspired by the debate. Social media specialists, community organizers, artists and an assortment of other characters will be present to discuss the concepts and ideas raised by the panelists, with light snacks and beverages available for purchase.

And yes, using the Facebook platform, I’ve invited my “friend” Andrew, who, following our meeting, reached out with a "nice to meet you (again)!" and a "hope to see you again soon!" It seems the rules of social etiquette IRL do translate online. Perhaps, some day our friendship will blossom beyond the digital interface where we first “met.”

SOCIAL NETWORKS: HUMANIST MODELS FOR MODERN PRACTICES? is 7-9pm, Monday, June 18, 2012 at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema inside the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (SFU Woodwards, 149 West Hastings Street, 3rd Floor). Tickets are free and available at the door or in advance via Eventbrite.

The post-debate event will be held at W2 Media Cafe, located in the Woodward’s Atrium at 111 Hastings Street.

This is the third in a series of posts about the people and things moving Vancouver forward by Hilary Henegar, a Vancouver-based blogger, social media consultant and connector. Follow her blog and on Twitter.





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