It’s easy for me to make friends online. Easier than in real life, actually. This makes me think about the concept of online friendship. Are the people you meet online friends in true sense of the word? Or is it impossible for them to be, because you never really meet them in person?
I used to believe that the people you meet online are not real friends. They can’t be, unless you meet them in real life (which isn’t always possible).
Then again, I tend to spend a lot of time online, and this was even more true for my early 20s. Some of my online friends helped me overcome loneliness in a particular moment in my life, and I was really close to them. Isn’t that enough to call them real friends?
So now I believe it’s quite possible to call online friends “real friends”. It’s not that they’re imaginary or that they can’t be there for you if you need them.
Still, there are some differences between real life and online friendship.
Most of online communication is written
It means you are often limited to what a written word can offer. Unless, of course, you decide to video chat with your friends, which is great, but a) I’ve never done it so I don’t know what is like and b) It’s still not the same as real life contact.
Not me, though. I always felt written communication worked better for me. I can’t read nonverbal signs well, and I am quite shy. It seems like I never know what to say, but I always know what to write. But some people find these aspects of Internet communication too limiting.
Internet is not real life
This is the main problem. The way many people see Internet, it’s not real life in full sense of the word. But how much of it is “really” real? Even if a person on the other side is honest, is it possible to truly get to know her? If you never met someone offline, can you say you met him at all? This puts online friends somewhere between imaginary friends and your real ones.
Plus, because Internet is not seen as real life, whatever happens online seems less important than the stuff that happens in real life. Now, in so many ways this is true: Internet shouldn’t be more important than the real life. But this is what ruins many online friendships: because of real life circumstances, people often forget about their online activities, and that includes online friends.
The closeness you build is… fake?
Here’s a potential danger. It’s easy to (seemingly) become close with someone online in a very short time. Sharing secrets and personal details bring people close, so you might feel like you really know this person (even though you never met him in true sense of the word).
On the other hand, sharing secrets and personal details often DO bring people together, and just because it happened online shouldn’t make that much of a difference.
Online friends tend to disappear
The problem is, while this closeness builds pretty quickly online, it can also be destroyed in an instant. A person loses his interest in a forum or a blog and he’s gone. He stops replying to your emails. Etc.
Luckily, there are solutions to these challenges, and it is possible to build and maintain great online friendships. Here are some things that can help:
Try to build stronger connections with your online friends, connections that are not dependent on websites you both frequent. Exchanging emails is a good idea. So is chatting (and video chatting). Depending on circumstances, exchanging phone numbers might be a good idea, too. And, finally, meeting your online friend in real life might make him or her your “real” friend. (Or not. But that’s another story).
Don’t forget about your friends once the message board closes or you lose interest in a blog. You still have your friend’s contact details, so use it to stay in touch.
Try not to share (or demand) any details you wouldn’t share in real life on a given stage of a friendship. Let things build. But sharing some things you wouldn’t share in real life is okay, too; just remember that this closeness can’t compensate for a real life contact.
Don’t forget about your online friends when something more exciting happens in real life. Inform them if you’re going to be offline and try to drop them a note from time to time, to see how they’re doing.
And, the most important one: treat your online friends as real people in full sense of the world. Sounds obvious, but people need to be reminded about it.
All in all
I do think online friends are real friends. But because Internet is so young, we still haven’t learned all the skills needed for building and maintaining online friendships. We simply don’t know yet what works in Internet communication (emotionally, and socially), so we are not sure how to behave.
The ways we meet and socialize with people in real life might not work on the Internet. Different rules apply for maintaining healthy online friendships. I guess we’re still unsure what they are, but I hope we’ll get there soon.