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Online friends

A question that came out of a discussion about on-line friends.

How many of your best friends are online only?


I value the entire online experience; it gets me thinking. It (often) makes me laugh,. I enjoy the kibitzing, and the ideas, that come from an environment in which both like minds and very unlike minds can meet, clash, and discuss. I value the sense of familiarity, the sense of community; you can certainly fit more people on a blog or an LJ board than you can in a room, and time becomes less critical in some ways -- if I'm suffering a bout of insomnia, the information is still there, and I can still respond to it, partaking in the discussion.

Discussions like these kept me sane when I first became a parent, because phone calls were impossible without interruption, and face it, baby screaming in your ear is not something you can ignore for more than about ten seconds, most of which are spent apologizing and getting off the phone.

But.

In a discussion with another online LJ denizen, something that struck me as odd came up: She said that many of her closest friends were people she'd never met or spoken to; that she couldn't actually put a voice to their online names or identities.

This made me pause. None of my best friends are online only. This doesn't mean that I don't value online friendships, but at some point, they cross the real world boundary in some less public way -- they almost have to.

Many of the friendships I value started in online venues (GEnie, for instance, but also in extended email interchanges), but developed over time with use of the phone and in-person meetings. I'm not entirely comfortable with the online-only version of friendship because what we present of ourselves -- both good and bad -- can often be so selective, we can't convey the whole picture. Nor can we derive the whole picture from another's selective information. We each come from different cultural contexts, and the way we use language -- to let off steam, for instance -- or the way we invoke privacy, are bound to be misunderstood by people who are completely reasonable, from their own cultural context. Or even just a different age; I cannot imagine what a conversation between my fifteen year old self and my forty year old self would be like, if it existed at all..

This may be some inherent flaw in the way I socialize. Or it could be my age.

So. Curious.

Comments

( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
sartorias
Dec. 14th, 2004 04:53 pm (UTC)
Wow. What an interesting question to ponder.

My bestest best friend is someone I've known since 1977, and I met him when we moved in next door to one another. And now that he's married happily to a wonderful woman, I suspect our being best friends is metamorphosing quite naturally into another sort of dynamic, which is fine--I don't think I have any 'best friends' in the schoolyard sense, but my social life is very definitely on-line. I do get to meet people once in a while, which just makes things so much better.

I don't think I get past a certain level of communication without having met a person face to face, talking more rapidly than we can online, seeing physical cues, hearing voice, etc.
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:05 pm (UTC)
Also perhaps because I was burned by someone who, in an almost-online-only relationship, managed to conceive an infatuation on me that led him to engage in a really scary piece of deceit. I cannot, myself, parse falling-in-love online-ly, but I learned that some people can, and do, and I've been generally wary ever since.

A variant of this happened to me, coming out of online chatting, rather than bulletin boards (the latter of which I consider LJ).

It hasn't made me wary in general; it has made me wary of specific things or phrases, but that's happened over the years in real life as well <wry g>
braider
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:03 pm (UTC)
None of my friends are online only. In fact, most of the folks I speak to online are people I've at least met in person once.

When I was a teenager, I had at one point 34 penpals. They were the best friends I had. The best of them I also talked to on the phone after awhile, and I met four of them in person. (My family actually spent vacation with the family of one of my penpals when I was 16).

The difference you're seeing may have to do with the definition of friend. There's "friend I eat lunch with at work", "friend I like to go do things with", "friend I can call at three in the morning in an emergency" - I realize that this ranges from "friendly acquaintance" to "bosom buddy", but unless I'm feeling nitpicky, they all get lumped under "friend".
haikujaguar
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:13 pm (UTC)
As much as I value my online friends, there is a physical component to friendship that I think all humans need.

You need people to hang out with on a Saturday night.

You need people to talk with at coffee shops.

You need someone to cry on and to hold you when you cry.

You need someone to go walking with, shoot hoops with, to just hang out. Someone you can call who'll "be there in ten."

We're social creatures, and I think that being social requires a physical component. Alas. We need transporters. :)
pegkerr
Dec. 15th, 2004 05:05 am (UTC)
That's one thing I've been thinking about lately. My very best friend in the world, kijjohnson, and I met in college, and after we graduated, we had a good number of years in which we hung out in the same city. She moved away, and our friendship might have died, but paradoxically, it got even deeper. We now call each other once a week, and we come to see each other occasionally, even though we're 475 miles apart.

But I've been missing her like the devil this week. I've been longing to see her, to spend time with her, just to be able to a coffeeshop with her. We missed our usual weekly call, and I've had a hard time getting a hold of her. And it's made me think about the fact that yes, you're right--it really does make a huge difference to be able to see your friend, to see the expression on her face when you tell her a funny story or how awful your day was.

I really wish I could go out with her for coffee. *Sigh*
aveareya
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:13 pm (UTC)
Though different for many others, I know I could not have a close friendship with people I only know online.

Part of this is because of my own inherent drawbacks - I often sound mean when I intend to be deadpan. People who know me already know this. I am also stingy with private details - I only feel inclined to give those up to people who are willing to spend real time with me.

Age may be a big deciding factor, I do have some younger friends that grew up with email as the common way to communicate rather than by phone or hanging out. That might explain some of their willingness to give so much of themselves in written word.

I think with most people, you would really miss out on their passion this way - some people possibly write what they think and post as they go, but I know I think out what I am going to say much more when I am writing on forums like these. This may mean that people are lucky and get something much more thought out - but if it's something someone is passionate about, you would miss so much not hearing it from their lips or seeing them face to face. I don't believe you can really get to know someone in this way. I do think you could meet more people than you usually would.

I'm going to point this one out to my brother - he grew up on chat boards or bbs's, so he may have a fantastically different perspective.
lnhammer
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:16 pm (UTC)
The past couple years, I've been slowly defictionalizing several friends I'd only known online. There's still a fair number, though, of strong aquaintances I only e-known.

But I've been living online for 20 years, starting with local BBSs in high school.

---L.
ogre_san
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:22 pm (UTC)
Few of my friends are strictly online, since I've met most of them at least once. There are, however some I've yet to meet and, even for those I have, online is how we interact most of the time since we don't live anywhere near each other. My physically present friends are in the minority.
rilina
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:22 pm (UTC)
My closest friendships are all with people who I've known and interacted with offline. I can imagine an online friendship eventually developing into a offline friendship, but I can't see online interaction being the sole basis of a truly deep friendship.
mmarques
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:28 pm (UTC)
Although I have known some people on-line for many years, I would not consider them "best friends" .... otherwise we would at least occasionally call and/or meet in person.
athenais
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:29 pm (UTC)
I am persuaded one can have a genuine friendship in print, but I don't think it can achieve the multiple layers I look for in a close friendship. It has to go "live" at some point or it remains limited.
emluv
Dec. 14th, 2004 05:49 pm (UTC)
I have a rather large group of good friends that I met thru various online venues, but with whom I eventually developed in-person relationships. There are a handful of people I interact with online that I've never met, but of those, I consider the majority acquaintances more than true friends; the few I do consider friends, I'm sure I'll eventually meet in real life, but schedules and distances have simply prevented it so far. The online thing is a wonderful way of meeting people and creating very focused discussions etc., but I think real, true friendship is too multi-faceted to maintain in cyberspace alone.
kyranjaye
Dec. 14th, 2004 06:06 pm (UTC)
When I was in high school (early '90's), all my friends were online - I was way beyond shy, except when I was online. I met some of these people on a couple of occasions, but it was mostly online-only.

During college, I developed RL friendships, and lost touch with most of those online people (this will happen when you go to school in the middle of nowhere and have no 'net access for two years).

Those people I knew during my HS years were absolutely my best friends, partly because I literally had no one else. My socialization process changed in college, and so now my definitions are different. I do believe that it's possible to be good friends with someone online-only, given the right circumstances, but I suspect it's always preferable to meet someone in person. Nowadays, it's harder, I think, to be friends online-only because people are more aware of how easy it is to deceive in the online world.

That said, I still communicate with one person from my HS days. At one time, she was one of my best friends. I still consider her a very good friend. I met her once, right before college, and then lost touch for several years, and almost didn't recognize the person I knew when we reconnected. (I'm not sure how much she recognized me, either, to be perfectly honest) But we learned or relearned each other again, and now I simply call her "my oldest friend."

I don't know that meeting her changed our relationship; if I hadn't immediately fallen off the face of the planet, things might have been different, who knows? At this point, I remember very little about that meeting to give me any substance - it was eleven years ago. I don't think that not meeting some of the others made any difference - the associations I had online at that point revolved around very specific topics, and without the shared connections, we often had little in common.

It's a different forum, with different rules. I suspect age does play some part - I am significantly more comfortable with the concept of online relationships than others I know, simply because I started earlier. I suspect that the kids coming up today will, in great part, be comfortable with online-based relationships because the concept is not alien to them, the way it is to people even my own age who are just starting to find their way to the 'net.

Um, that was long and babbly and possibly incoherent. Will stop now.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 14th, 2004 06:32 pm (UTC)
I totally agree -- when I was 15 and in the Trek fandom, money and minority prevented me from attending cons, etc., but even so the net was seen (from my perspective) as a supplement to the already-in-place physical communties. The days of mailing lists and paper newsletters, doncha know. I had a semi-close friend who called, though we were too far apart to meet, but of course there was the assumption that if we could have, we would. (Of course, 10 years later we weren't really friends, and I was in LA, and turned him down for lunch, but that's another story)

In college, I used the net to interact with friends from home, and it was faster than calling everyone to coordinate dinner and such on campus (this is just before cell phones exploded). So not really an issue -- though to this day my primary use of the net is to keep in touch with people I've spent lots of time with in person.

So, flash forward. A dear friend (and I am VERY sparing about that term) is totally against interacting with OL friends at all. No phone, no meeting, mail goes through a proxy. Originally this was understandable, because he was stalked a few years ago.

But now we've known each other over a year, and I've met/planned to meet/spoken on the phone with most of our shared acquaintance (including one of his RL friends, who is now my RL friend). Two attend or are applying to my alma mater. Four of our friends are getting married. He's flat-out refused to go to one wedding, and no way of telling what he'll say about the other pair (who are RL friends).

It's massively frustrating, mostly because anyone who brings it up gets told, "who needs to meet? who needs to call?" as if it's the most absurd idea ever, as opposed to the natural progression of close friendships. It would almost be understandable if he treated us like acquaintances consistently, but he doesn't: he stays up with friends in trouble or worried, etc.

Cognitive dissonance, man.
msagara
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:18 pm (UTC)
So, flash forward. A dear friend (and I am VERY sparing about that term) is totally against interacting with OL friends at all. No phone, no meeting, mail goes through a proxy. Originally this was understandable, because he was stalked a few years ago.

I can understand this; it's one of the possible hazards of online communication -- although perhaps because I've worked in retail for years, I've seen all kinds of behaviour that verges on occasion towards the truly creepy. The difference in retail is that everything is predicated on, well, either appearance or the captivity-to-customer-service that prevents people from telling someone to drop dead or get out automatically, when they might on any other occasion.

But now we've known each other over a year, and I've met/planned to meet/spoken on the phone with most of our shared acquaintance (including one of his RL friends, who is now my RL friend). Two attend or are applying to my alma mater. Four of our friends are getting married. He's flat-out refused to go to one wedding, and no way of telling what he'll say about the other pair (who are RL friends).

I can see how this would be massively frustrating. Just to make sure I understand this: he's the online friend, you've met or talked to some of his real life friends, but he's not willing to meet either you or some of your real life friends?

It's massively frustrating, mostly because anyone who brings it up gets told, "who needs to meet? who needs to call?" as if it's the most absurd idea ever, as opposed to the natural progression of close friendships. It would almost be understandable if he treated us like acquaintances consistently, but he doesn't: he stays up with friends in trouble or worried, etc.

Oddly enough, I can almost understand the latter as well. If he's had things turn out badly in the past, and he values strongly what he already has, then meeting = change and change = risk. He clearly values what he already has in terms of a relationship; he clearly sees it as valuable, in terms of being willing to invest the time to stay up (I assume this is IM?) with troubled friends. Possibly going beyond that, for him, means endangering it, in which case, the why bother? would make some sort of sense.

Having said all of this, it occurs to me that at my brother's wedding, several of his friends were online gaming friends of years longstanding -- people he'd met via Everquest. The primary interaction for a long time was, well, Everquest (and down time in Everquest), one of the few games my spouse has definitively asked me not to play.

I've never actually done online gaming; I play computer games, but usually either with my kids on the internal network, or alone.
merriehaskell
Dec. 14th, 2004 06:52 pm (UTC)
Friend is such an awkward word... some use it often when they should be saying acquaintance. It's hard to recognize when someone crosses the acquaintance gap in real life, anyway, and it's doubly hard in on-line life.

I don't know. My first on-line experiences were with people at my university, and it was a no-brainer to meet these people in real life at parties and for coffee, and no one I wanted to know stayed on-line only. Thus, I tend to feel very fluid about on-line friendships. If I have decided someone is a friend, it's merely because I haven't met them *yet*. I would have a hard time deciding someone was a friend if I believed there was never any possibility of us meeting. Does that make sense? Not a very logical argument, I guess, but it does bespeak a very non-linear holistic approach to friendship I wasn't really aware that I had. Hm...

At the same time, I don't automatically decide everyone I interact with on-line is a friend. There has to be more than simple interaction.
janni
Dec. 14th, 2004 07:04 pm (UTC)
I think one can have friends online, but they tend to be closer to casual friends, as opposed to the sort of friends that in a bind you can call at 2 a.m.
prettyarbitrary
Dec. 14th, 2004 07:58 pm (UTC)
I've heard this before from folks online; usually teens, but not always. They do always seem to be people who firmly believe they have a major impediment to dealing with others IRL. In some cases, they're out of place in their real-life neighborhood, and don't have much in common with anyone around them. Many have never mastered the skills for socializing without already sharing common ground. Others have major family problems, issues, or even various handicaps that make it difficult to connect with and be understood by the people around them. No one has ever said this to me who was really comfortable dealing with other people.

It's probably condescending to suggest that most of these folks haven't had the luck to meet someone IRL who could teach them the meaning of close friendship. So I won't say that. Besides, while it may be difficult to really 'be there for' someone when you only know them online, it definitely is not impossible. A lot of it depends on what you need out of a friendship. As an extreme case, I recall one story about a girl who OD'd while on IM. Her online friends used the Web to snag her phone number and call her family to get help.

For my part, all my 'permanent' friends are IRL. I've known 'temporary' friends online. They've been really good people, always ready to listen and offer advice, a lot of fun to talk to, maybe people I was lucky enough to help out in turn. But they stay in my life for a few months or a year, and then we just sort of part ways. If they stuck around, I know I'd feel an urge to meet them face-to-face at a certain point. I'd want to know the things about them, and I'd want them to know the things about me, that you can't learn through a computer.
ohiblather
Dec. 14th, 2004 08:16 pm (UTC)
None of my best friends are online only. I've found (through experience, unfortunately) that as wonderful as someone is online, you can never get a true idea of what the person is like unless you meet them in person.

So for me, I never let a friendship progress past a certain point until I actually spend some face-to-face time with the person. It takes me a long time to become close to someone, or at least to let someone get close to me. A lot of trust is involved, and that includes each of us seeing the other in less-than-optimum states. Tough to do solely through online communication.

I've also found limits to the friendships I can cultivate that are mainly through online contact.

However, I do know people who DO have purely online close friendships who have perfectly satisfied.

It's not enough for me, however.
thecityofdis
Dec. 14th, 2004 10:27 pm (UTC)
For a bracket of several years, all of my good friends were online, and online only. I had almost none in real life, and wasn't making them any time soon.

I did, eventually, branch out and make friends in real life, and retain my online friends. Over time, the closest of my close online friends and I became closer, upgrading to phone conversations and eventually, in-person meetings (with two, exactly). I do still consider, however, maybe four or five people I've only known OL as 'real' friends.
msagara
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:21 pm (UTC)
I did, eventually, branch out and make friends in real life, and retain my online friends. Over time, the closest of my close online friends and I became closer, upgrading to phone conversations and eventually, in-person meetings (with two, exactly). I do still consider, however, maybe four or five people I've only known OL as 'real' friends.

Thank you for this; I wasn't asking out of any sense of dismissal, but because it had never occurred to me to use the phrase 'best friends' concurrent with 'have no idea what their voices sound like'.
groblek
Dec. 15th, 2004 01:51 am (UTC)
While I have many friends online, all of them are people who I met and became friends with in person first. I tend to use the internet as a way of keeping in touch with people I already know, rather than going out and meeting people. I'm not sure why, but I just don't go out of my way to meet people online. msagara, your LJ is one of two that I read of people who I haven't met, and in both cases they're authors whose work I greatly enjoy.
msagara
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:23 pm (UTC)
While I have many friends online, all of them are people who I met and became friends with in person first. I tend to use the internet as a way of keeping in touch with people I already know, rather than going out and meeting people. I'm not sure why, but I just don't go out of my way to meet people online. msagara, your LJ is one of two that I read of people who I haven't met, and in both cases they're authors whose work I greatly enjoy.

Thank you!

I confess that I read a lot of writing by people I've never met; I read a number of LJs by people I know well. The first is almost always because of some shared interest, some shared sense of humour; the second because it's a way of playing catch up -- social life, two part-time jobs and two children kind of don't go together very well <wry g>.

I guess it would depend on what you read online for. Hmmm.
twiegand
Dec. 15th, 2004 02:31 am (UTC)
Considering that I can almost count the people in RL that I consider friends on one hand and that three of them are at least three hours away in Canada, yes you, I find it very difficult to make friends. Online I have less. Actually, I don't have any. I keep in touch with a few friends and acquaintences online and people I no longer consider friends but more family as I have lived in their homes and they have lived in mine. I have a writing partner online that helps with reading my work and I hope to meet her someday soon. But you know how I tend to lurk and not say much anyway.

By the way, I will be up to see two of my Canandian friends at their place of work on Thursday, weather permitting.
greenmtnboy18
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:14 am (UTC)
Hate the telephone, love the internet, but most prefer in-person.

I have had excellent friends online, but eventually I need more. Have had bad experiences at times when the online relationship tried to translate to real-time. Have been burned and have learned. For someone to be considered one of my *best* friends, I need in-person interaction. Not phone interaction, because I hate phone interaction. But some in-person connection.

Which isn't to say I haven't developed some wonderful friendships over online connections. I have, and I truly value them. Many of those I value the most have made the jump to real-time. Some are still online only... but even as I think of that, I can't really say that they are truly close.

I've come to value the in-person connection too much. It wasn't always this way, and there have been times in my life that most of my social life was online. But it is this way now.
ellarien
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:48 am (UTC)
I had an almost online-only friend for a while -- we met in person just once, when I passed through her city in transit from the far side of the ocean to the far side of the continent, and occasionally talked on the phone, but the real medium of the relationship was electrons. Eventually we lost touch, when real life got the upper hand and the mutual interest that brought us together ceased to be so compelling, but for a while it was about as close as any friendship I've ever had.

There's something else about that, which I'd forgotten until I started writing this. For a year or so in the middle, we were a gang of three. And then the other two parties met in real life, and didn't get on, and that was the end of that, which I suppose just goes to show the limitations of online relationships.
illaraphaniel
Dec. 15th, 2004 12:23 pm (UTC)
I don't see a best friendship as requiring a physical tag as such.

My best friend is someone I've known for twenty years, went through high school together, play bad golf regularly, same taste in films and we both enjoy watching sport from the comfort of a lounge room, yet he simply doesn't understand why I like to read books.

It's not an issue for him or me, however reading a book and occasionally finding that one special book is one of the loves of my life. Reading however is an incredibly solo type event and the time invested is often measured in weeks which tends to limit your social interaction somewhat. You can't get a group of friends together to go read a book and not just because their interpretation on how a character's name should be pronounced is going to be different.

My introduction to the internet was because I wanted to talk about the books that meant so much to me and bitch about the ones that pissed me off; and I found those friends. Some I've now met and some I haven't but I'm not sure the meeting has changed any perceptions I'd previously had. This might be because books are such an internal thing (well for me anyway) that it would be hard to not get a rounded picture of an individual and I find email relatively expressive of a personality.

When I read a good book, the online people are who I turn to; does that not make them a best friend? Sometimes it's nice to get more, other times just having a 'moment' is all that matters.
oracne
Dec. 15th, 2004 03:25 pm (UTC)
I value my online friends, but I don't consider them as close as I do people I've met in person several times. Of course, some "in person" friends I orignally met online.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 16th, 2004 04:50 am (UTC)
I have a hard time using the word "friend" to refer to people I've known online-only. There's always some kind of qualifier, like "friend I know from that one website I'm always talking about."

But to be a good friend, I need to have regular in-person contact.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 29th, 2005 11:50 am (UTC)
Greetings to you and yours
So, I decided to look you up on the net, and WOW, was I ever impressed.

Please note, this is the first time I have participated in a blog.

Sounds like you are really happening! I am glad to hear it.

Stephanie Reford says hello!

X's and 0's

Applehayleybaum (416) 827-2559
ally_in_canada
Feb. 23rd, 2005 11:03 am (UTC)
Yes...
I know I'm coming into this conversation a little late. However, I have to say that while most of my e-mail and IMing are related to my family (far-flung and no one close by), I have made at least 2 very close friends on-line, one of whom I have met only once, but with whom I exchange e-mails two to three times a day.

You see, after I got pregnant with my 2nd child, I got involved in a pregnancy board, with women all expecting a child the same month as me. Oddly enough, through various flame wars and group permutations, I am still involved with a core group of about 20 women. We write pretty much daily, about all the little things in life. In the olden days of my mother's generation, maybe I'd be on the phone all day long with my gal pals, but instead, I exchange e-mails. From this group, I have become particularly good friends with two of the ladies. One, who lives in Quebec, has probably moved beyond whatever is defined as on-line friend, since we visit about 2 or 3 times a year, and have vacationed at each others houses. Another, who lives in the states, I've only met once, but she is now probably one of my closest friends.

So yes, you in my opinion you can make friends on-line. And to come back to the question, I'd say I have one best friend who is on-line only. I'm not one to use the phrase lightly either! Besides my spouse, I'd say I don't have any "best friends" IRL, at least not here. All my "best friends" are from university, and mostly, we keep in touch with e-mail.

-Ally (wife of Ted. You know Ted)
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