The New, Improved Online Friendship

Cherry Blossom Festival in Gucun Park in northern Shanghai on March 18, 2015.
Cherry Blossom Festival in Gucun Park in northern Shanghai on March 18, 2015. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

On its surface, Pplkpr — an app, paired with a smartwatch that measures its wearer's heartbeat and stress levels — seems like any number of other new devices meant to go on your wrist. But it has a different purpose. Once it knows when you're stressed, Pplkpr asks for more information: What were you doing? And, more important, who else was around? Over weeks and months, Pplkpr will unfriend those negative acquaintances on Facebook and subtly guide the user away from the relationship IRL.

During testing, one pair of friends got so stressed out with each other that the device split them apart, disconnecting them on social platforms and canceling their plans with each other automatically. “It was funny at first but kind of a catharsis for that week,” says media artist Kyle McDonald, one of Pplkpr's co-creators. “I think they’re best friends again.”

Pplkpr might be a bit of a gimmick, but the larger problem it attempts to address is real: Right now, we are too connected to each other — and it's only making us unhappy. “The research seems to point that the more time we spend by ourselves on the internet the more unhappy we feel, the more disconnected,” says Niobe Way, a New York University professor of applied psychology who studies friendship in children. The more than 1.3 billion people on Facebook, bombarding their “friends” with status updates and baby photos, aren't helping. “It’s not Facebook itself,” says Way. “It’s the delusion that somehow you have all these friends, but you don’t actually feel like you have any.” 

Even if “friend” has come to mean, as Way puts it, “anybody you’re connecting to at all," technology companies are pushing us to get ever more intimate with each other — whether by sharing heartbeats, personal live video, or a virtual-reality interaction. But if social media so far has encouraged our shallow interpersonal tendencies, this new wave of technologies could force online friendships to more closely resemble the ones we cultivate in real life: more intense, less numerous, and open to a broader range of emotions. In other words, our online relationships might start to resemble actual friendships again.

The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends' day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.

The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.

That level of information goes beyond what people might actually choose to share with virtual strangers. (Are you really going to share your heartbeat with a person you meant once at a party?) “Perhaps the next five years or so will be about having fewer, more intense relationships,” Pplkpr's McDonald says. “We need help to get down to that point, trimming the fat.” If you combine all these disparate systems, across all devices — phone, laptop, watch, and virtual-reality goggles — whom would you want to share that with? Maybe not with everyone you know, but with a tailor-made, small-scale social networks specifically for friends and family.

There's also the problem of separation between online identity and the lives we maintain in the physical world, which is hard to bridge. Facebook posts are relentlessly cheerful; Instagram presents daily life in the best of all possible lights. “I think we're a little less experienced at knowing how to 'do' ourselves online, and the feedback loops are a little different,” Reichelt says.

A booming field called sentiment analysis could pull back those layers, though. These tools can pick up emotions from a block of text (or, with systems like Emotient, from video) and could help social networks generate information on just how its users are feeling. Sometimes a status update is actually a cry for help — a better layer of social technology might make this more apparent by adding a colored signal to represent a larger emotional state.

What would a social network that fosters better connection look like? Way, the NYU psychologist, argues that beyond simply talking about ourselves —  answering that ever-present question of “What’s on your mind?” in Facebook’s update box — we should actually be “asking real questions of each other,” she says. So rather than the self-directed prompt, perhaps our social networks should be inquiring of us, “What’s going on with Sarah? She’s seemed down lately.”

This is a new level of ambient intimacy — a heightening of the sort of emotional surveillance we're already practicing by keeping tabs on friends’ Instagrams and Snapchats. Perhaps this is what future friendship will look like: With a wider range of emotions communicated online, you'll know when it’s time for an emergency happy hour, even at 1 p.m. Self-driving cars will automatically take you to a decent bar by a friend’s apartment or office. Live video will show everyone else in your immediate social network what’s happening and encourage them to join in. And when the inevitable hangover comes the next morning, instead of adding friends to Facebook, you can rehash your personal dashboards and decide who's worth keeping in the circle.