Even before the advent of social networks, from the time when I first started to learn English, I’ve always felt that U.S. English doesn’t have enough words to distinguish levels of social relationships and friendship that are “built into” other languages.
When I moved to the U.S., it was tough for a while to re-frame my thinking on that in a language that didn’t allow me to express levels of subtle differences in the nature or closeness of the relationship (e.g., romantic/platonic, male/female, age difference, length of relationship, levels of respect).
In my mind, these differences still existed, but everybody became “a friend of mine” when referring to them or talking about them, which can range in meaning from “someone I casually met yesterday” to “my best friend all my life”.
For a while I thought of it as “the great linguistic equalizer” that simply erased formal distinctions of relationship levels from U.S. English and that the nature of the relationship is in its existence and evolution, not the label or name we give it. And that was fine for a while.
Then came Facebook, which made the whole thing much worse. Now a FB “friend” or “friending someone on FB” can, and often does, refer to someone we’ve never even met face-to-face. At the same time, the term “acquaintance” is falling out of use. Don’t believe me? Ask the average teenager to spell it.
I also believe that such linguistic erosion occurs on a much larger scale when using texting as a a primary communication mode. Why text “acquaintance” if you can just type “friend”? Why text “This is problematic” when you can just type “I hate this”. You can find examples like this in texting habits for almost every word that has 3 or more syllables. The implications for our future communication competence are unknown, but I’m thinking they’re not good.