Facebook Friends Or Your Next-Door Neighbours: Who Are You Closer To?

A leading historian says the 'good old days' of knowing your neighbours weren't so rosy after all.

Modern digital friendships are better than old-fashioned neighbourly ones, a social historian has said. The ability to pick and choose who we are friends with rather than automatically becoming BFFs with whoever shares our fence (or party wall) means friendships are deeper and more meaningful, apparently.

In previous generations, the people living around you became your social circle by default. That’s still how it works on soaps like EastEnders and Neighbours, where everyone operates a real ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to maintaining relationships and immediately becomes besties with the people living near them. But it’s not really how things work in real life, is it?

And that’s probably not a bad thing – nobody in Walford or Erinsborough can walk down the road without bumping into three exes, someone that tried to murder them, and a former best friend fallen on hard times.

Communication has become more personal, argues social historian Jon Lawrence, associate history professor at the University of Exeter – as it’s now based on actual connections and friendship rather than proximity or need.

Lawrence’s new book Me, Me, Me? The Search For Community In Post-War England looks at the way friendships have changed over the last 70 years, and argues that harking back to a “golden era” is a rose-tinted perspective.

What people remember as the ‘good old days’, when anybody could leave their door unlocked at night and everybody was constantly helping everybody else out, was actually, suggests Lawrence, a period rife with feuding families and squabbling neighbours. It’s certainly a nice counterpoint to the idea that everyone today is just a big selfish bastard.

A rise in ‘individualism’ – stoked by social media, the increased likelihood we’ll move around a lot due to rising house prices, or our habit of starting families later in life – is sometimes blamed for a spike in mental health issues and loneliness. But Lawrence believes this is missing the point.

He told The Times that “the urge to connect is as strong in our culture as the urge for autonomy. We need to think in a joined-up way about how [social media] can allow people to connect in the way that they wish.”

People overemphasise the importance of physical proximity in a relationship, he added. It’s now easier than ever to feel connected daily to people a long way away. Yes, there might be fewer in-depth chats over garden fences, but there are more conversations online than ever.

But even if Lawrence is right about digital friendship, there’s still an obvious downside – our Facebook friends are of limited use in the kind of situation that requires an in-person presence. When your pals are emotionally close to you but physically far away, calling in babysitting favours or getting a hand fixing that fence you don’t chat over isn’t particularly easy. And there’s no denying that neighbours helping neighbours is a heartwarming thing.

So, there’s something to be said for having some kind of relationship with yours – whether that’s keeping an eye on each other’s houses when you’re on holiday, or simply on each other when times get tough. It just doesn’t need to be life-defining friendship. Living on Ramsay Street might seem sunny on the surface – but does anyone really need that much drama?

Read more about friendship in HuffPost UK’s weekly series, Group Chat –where our writers discuss how to reclaim your social life in a busy world.