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Friendship is about loyalty, not laws. Should it be policed?

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Wild Bill Hickok (third from left) alongside the author’s great-great uncle Sheriff Plunkett (right) at Deadwood in 1906. From Deadwood: 1876-1976 (2005) by Beverly Pechan and Bill Groethe/Arcadia Publishing

My great-great-uncle, Matt Plunkett, was the sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, back in 1906, when Buffalo Bill Cody came to town. One picture shows moustachioed Sheriff Plunkett with Buffalo Bill next to a statue of Wild Bill Hickok, who’d been killed decades earlier over a poker dispute in a local saloon. According to the caption, Buffalo Bill was in Deadwood to ‘pay his respects’ to a friend and fellow gunslinger, though why my uncle was there I don’t know. Perhaps to keep the peace.

Friendship is the most lawless of our close relationships. That’s why it’s been the dominant human relationship on which today’s digital world, a 21st-century Wild West, has been won. Digital social networks are built on the sharing of private information – just like real-world friendships. The technology encourages us to share, both about ourselves and the people around us. Who is likely to comprise the largest category of people we interact with every day? Friends, from the silver to the gold, as the old song goes, and many other types of metal too.

Friends are tied to each other through emotions, customs and norms – not through a legally defined relationship, such as marriage or parenting, that imposes obligations. Anybody can become friends, we believe, and more is always merrier. But with the advent of the digital domain, friendship has become more fraught. Online and off, we can share information about our friends without their permission and without legal restriction (except for slander and libel).

Information shared between friends can wind up being seen by people outside the friendship network who are not the intended audience. One example is the Harvard Facebook group scandal a few years ago when racist, offensive content allegedly meant as inside jokes........

© Aeon