I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine recently. This friend, for what it’s worth, is someone whom I met first on Twitter, probably about three years ago now. We were talking about how in the past, when we’ve had a junky day, we would meet up with friends and go out for ice cream or watch a marathon of really stupid movies. At the very least, we’d meet up with them to talk things out. We’d see each others’ facial expressions, hear the tonality in each others’ voices, and know whether we should worry or not.
In the online world, of course, none of that is (usually) possible. Sure, you can send pictures of ice cream and you can talk about virtual parties, but it’s just not the same thing. This broaches the question, painful though it might be: Are people whom you befriend online truly friends?
How full do you feel your life is?
For some people, this question is actually potentially life-changing depending on how they answer it. Many people, in this age of “I’m busy” or “I’m an introvert,” assume that their “online community” is as good as gold where friendship is concerned. There is a feeling that these people are the “call at 3 AM” types of friends. But sometimes that is not actually the case. Try as we might, sometimes it is hard to incorporate people whom we interface with online into our regular daily lives – the place where we see faces, get hugs, eat together, and do all of that other kind of mushy human stuff. It is hard, because we are human, to keep people who are out of sight out of mind.
For people who depend a great deal on their online friends, this can create mind-boggling scenarios of extreme disappointment and depression. The assumption that online friendships work the same way as “regular” offline friendships can easily lead to misunderstandings and let-downs if both people aren’t on the same page. For a person who is desperately reaching out for help, let’s face it – this can be a heavy burden to add to one’s load.
When people are liking each other but aren’t quite “officially” dating, they come to a point that I like to refer to as “the talk.” “Are we getting serious, or…what?” I think the same thing has to happen in regards to online friends if you are concerned about what the status of your friendship really is. I tend to do this by trying to take the relationship outside of the normal environment.
If we pretty much engage on Facebook and Twitter, I may first ask if we can exchange emails. Emails are safe but they are beyond that social media bubble. Beyond that, it’s always nice for me if I can talk to a person on the phone or Skype with them. That helps us learn about how we talk, how we sound, or if on Skype, how we gesture and what our facial expressions are like. These things don’t necessarily change the status of the relationship, but if both parties are willing to take things beyond the public realm of social media, there is, I think, a good chance for the friendship to evolve into a more traditional kind of friendship.
Does it matter?
Of course, for some people this is a non-issue. Online friends are great. People who they go out to dinner with every Friday night are great. “Buddies” are great. I am reminded of a story that Sherry Turkle tells in Alone Together. A man named Adam kept referring to his “best friend,” a woman whom he had been playing an online game with for a long period of time. Turkle asked if he knew if the person had been using their real name or if it was even really a woman he had been talking to. No to both answers. “Where is she now?” Turkle asked. Adam replied that the woman had stopped playing the game and from that point on he had completely lost touch with her. Yet he still referred to her as his best friend.
Maybe it’s just the word “friend” that is not broad enough to cover what happens between people in our modern society. But I think it does matter. As more people rely on the online world for a sense of fulfillment, I think it matters a lot.