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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 )
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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)
(no subject) - msagara - Dec. 15th, 2004 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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