What does "friend" mean? It’s always been a slippery term, subtly changing through the ages. Even today, the word slips and slides between meanings. A young lawyer meets some friends for a drink, but she only sleeps with her boyfriend. There are some things she can only tell her best friend. As a donor, she is a friend of the museum. In court, she attacks the arguments of her learned friend. When she gets into politics, she’ll address a crowd of friends. She probably has hundreds of friends on Facebook.
Artist Colin Pinegar wanted to examine the particularly strange nature of the Facebook friend. "Everyone I knew was all lumped into one category, and I wanted to see some differentiation," he says. He created a "Friend Audit," subjecting his friend list to questions like "Do I recognize this person by their name alone?" and "Have I seen them around this month? This year? Did we say 'hi?'"
A score of zero resulted in a de-friending. All the other results were arranged on a 25-point scale and Pinegar arranged those along a gradient from purple (closest friends) to pink (distant connections). He then cast a self-portrait bust in wax for each of those relationships, tinted to match the closeness. After displaying the work, he held a party to give away the busts to his friends. "Not surprisingly, the people that attended my show on the night I gave away the busts were on the purple side of the spectrum," he says. "Showing up for an art show (even though you know you’re getting a free piece of personalized art) was not something I could convince my Facebook-only friends to do."
In our correspondence, Pinegar emphasized the importance of the physical aspects of friendship—actually being around one another. The decision to make what amounts to a physical infographic is a reflection of that importance. "Like friendship it took a lot of time, planning, and effort, but I think it was far more impactful than looking at a poster would have been."
Seeing all of Pinegar’s relationships neatly ranked, I can’t help but think of the capriciousness of children deciding who is and isn’t invited to their birthday party, or the terror of an engaged couple having to make the same choices in the face of a mounting wedding bill. The problem with friendships is that they change all the time. You start spending more time with this group or that group, you move, you have a fight, you fall in love. It’s this constant low-level shifting that makes maintaining lists or circles so utterly unappealing and it’s the reason a lot of people let their social network connections become one flat category.
Pinegar’s approach boils those messy feelings of trust and betrayal down to the simple facts of behavior. Each question asks not how he feels about people but what he does with them. "Some people were insulted by the color of the bust they received, but I found it refreshing to confront the reality of our relationship," he says, "If someone was on the pink side, it wasn’t because I didn’t like him or her personally, it was because we had not done things best friends typically make an effort to do with each other."
Pinegar says that he thinks the rankings of friends as displayed by the busts are pretty stable. He acknowledges that it might have been possible for an acquaintance to climb the ranks by happening to make an effort to be in touch at the moment he was performing the audit but points out that this is pretty unlikely. "The things that scored points on the survey required equal amounts of great effort from both parties—and isn’t that what friendship should require?"
[Hat tip: The New Aesthetic. ]