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How Real Are Your Online Friends?

Note from Jens** This is a guest post from Frank. I’m not going to tell you my opinion, unless you leave a comment (and if you do, it will be personal, and we might even become friends).

A lot of media attention is given to circumstances where someone attempts to meet an online friend in the real world and disaster strikes. If you based your opinion of online meetings on what you see printed in the press you’d believe that no one on the Internet is who they say they are. But with an accepted dose of deception, are friendships formed online an equal substitute for friendships formed in the real world?

According to Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy the requirements of a friendship are mutual caring, intimacy, and shared activity. Do online friendships fulfill this definition?

Mutual Caring

Mutual caring is defined simply as both parties in the friendship caring about the other. Do online friends care about each?

There are various levels of caring in an online friendship. The majority of interactions you have on the Internet are mostly impersonal and merely the trading of information with others. But you can definitely think about people you have met online that either through prolonged interaction or a common interest your thoughts of them grew beyond simply seeking information.

If in an online friendship you’ve found yourself wondering how the person is doing or really being concerned with their personal well-being in regard to the information they are sharing, then this surely qualifies for the first test in friendship.

Intimacy

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia the inclusion of intimacy in the requirements is meant to eliminate casual friendships or acquaintances form the definition of true friendship. And if this is the definition that we will measure online friendship against, then we should probably look at some statistics involving online “friends”.

According to Facebook, the average user has 130 friends. And according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, as quoted on the BBC, the average person has 150 friends in real life. But these friends are of varying degrees. Dunbar says there is a core group of five friends with most people and another 10 consisting of an inner circle. We can assume that online, these figures are probably similar.

So as with real world friends, the number of people you might consider having the designation as “intimate” will be around five.

Shared Activity

Shared activity might be the one category of friendship that the Internet has a leg up on real world relationships. Communities on the Internet are often highly segregated based on interest. You’re probably unlikely to randomly stumble onto a sports car forum on the Internet while looking for career advice. But in the real world, friendships are often formed by proximity rather than interest.

It would appear that the majority of friendships born online came as a result of a shared activity, whether it be a video game both partners played, a shopping site they both reviewed similar products on, or a hobby they were both looking for tips on.

So how real are online friendships?

It appears, like friendships formed in real life, that the degree of realness depends on the intensity of the different aspects that make up friendship. Is there that big of a discrepancy between real-world and online friendships? According to the popular description of friendship, as based down by philosophers over the ages, it looks like as long as the basic requirements are met, they really are no different.

Frank Anderson is a writer and blogger for all things tech and Internet related. He also works with email exchange hosting and other hosting related issues.



54 responses to “How Real Are Your Online Friends?”

  1. Raj says:

    I feel that online friends are better than offline ones. As you have mentioned in the third point, people become friends online based on shared interests. So, they have a lot of common ground already. Second, rivalries and competition Online are not as huge as one sees them offline. People are more ready to help each other (even if they are strangers) in the Online world.

    That said, would I like to meet my Online friends Offline? Would I be able to communicate with them Offline, in the same spirit that I do Online? To me at least, that part was difficult. Not sure how others feel.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Raj,

      The part about shared interests is important. That’s something I really find interesting about online friends. I am friends with a lot of people offline that I don’t have anything similar interests with other than a common past. But that’s enough to become a friend offline, but not online.

      I also find it very interesting to join my friends online when I have the time and when I feel like it. We’re usually not online at the same time, so I live in Norway and write when many of my friends are sleeping, and when I go to sleep, they’ll be writing me.

      To me, online friends are just as real as offline, and I feel that I’m spending more time with some of my online friends than with most of my offline friends.. and that’s very interesting 🙂

      Jens

    • Bruker says:

      Raj, sorry but I am not agree with you, offline friends are real and stay ready to help you any time.

  2. Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

    Hmm….interesting point of view. I would expect that in the decades to come, the definition of ‘friendship’ will be tweaked considerably, as a result of social media influence. I have ‘friends’ on Facebook who I doubt I will speak to in a meaningful capacity….ever. I have ‘friends’ on Twitter with whom I’ve exchanged some fairly lively ‘conversation’ about topics that are near and dear to my heart. I have ‘friends’ IRL that I really don’t like all that much. What is a friend?

    I suspect that question will become harder and harder to answer over time, as the lines become more blurred and friendships become more fluid.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Ruth,

      I have been thinking a lot about friendship lately, and especially about how much time I spend with some of my online friends. I feel that I know a lot about them, enough to keep thinking about them at times when I’m not online looking for their latest blog post. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I know a lot of details about their lives. But, we’re having personal conversations, and we’re talking like we’ve known each other for years. So, it feels real.

      Online friendships are a little scary, because there are no doubt in my mind that they are real, but I’m also thinking that they might be hurting offline relationships. Because we just have this much time, and we decide how we’re spending it. If we spend it with our online friends, it means that our offline friends will not see us (at that specific time). So, the question I’m asking is, are online relationships hurting offline relationships? I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting question 🙂

      • ericastacey says:

        Hi Jens,
        Interesting blog post. I think if you spend a lot of time with online friends, that’s definitely impacting offline friends in someway. Better everyone can be the judge of this themselves though, and work out how and with whom they’d like to communicate.

        Erica

        • Jens says:

          Hi Erica,

          Absolutely. On the other hand, it’s so much easier to find the time to communicate with your online friends, since you can use your computer whenever you have the time and wherever you are. When I have five minutes, I usually send an email, or comment on social media or whatever. But if I have five minutes, I almost never just contact one of my offline friends. And that’s a big difference in the relationships to me.

          Thanks a lot for stopping by Erica.

  3. Carolyn says:

    I’m a big fan of online friends. I truly believe people can connect online even if they never meet in person. In the olden times, people had pen pals who corresponded for years without meeting.

    Today people make connections in social media and might have more daily interaction with them than their online friends and family.

    I think people who don’t believe in online friends probably don’t engage in social media. But I also think they’re missing out! 🙂

    • Bill Dorman says:

      We know you do; you will take in any stray, won’t you?………:)

    • Jens says:

      Carolyn,

      That reminds me of my pen pal from Denmark. We used to write for years, and we met once (it was part of a school project). It didn’t work out at all. After we met this one time, we stopped writing. I was about ten years old 🙂

      But, the reason we started writing was because of the school project, not because we had any type of shared interests. And that’s a very interesting point when it comes to online friends.

  4. Brock Blohm says:

    I’m with Carolyn – I am also a huge fan of online friends. I have many of them that I have never met in person. Crazy, huh? Not to me. They are just as real, if you ask me.

    We interact, communicate, laugh, but we have never met :). They also help promote content, which is a good thing in this industry 🙂

    • Jens says:

      Hi Brock,

      I also agree with Carolyn. I have actually never met any of my online friends in person, but I’m hoping that I will. Marcus Sheridan (of the Sales Lion) “promised” me that he will look me up within five years when he comes to Norway. And that would be awesome. I can hardly wait.

      Sometimes, I believe that being online it’s even easier to be who we really are. We don’t pretend, we just write like it is. And that’s when we see who people really are. I think it’s so much easier to express myself online, than face-to-face (not all the time, but many times).

    • Arjun Rai says:

      Yeah its good to have online friends but as comparison between online and offline, Offline are best.

  5. vhien says:

    I had only few and they really real. I guess. The presence of intimacy and sincerity of our relationship is there and maybe this is the basis of friendship online.

    Getting acquaintances online is a lot easier than in real world but it is hard to know if they’re really true. Only time can define it. I’m making few now… hope get more.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Vhien,

      I believe it’s fairly easy to tell if your online friends are real. We need to keep communicating for weeks and months, and it’s easy to tell on the way they write, and chat on Skype if they are sincere (I don’t believe that most people are interesting to keep communicating for weeks/months if they didn’t enjoy it).

      And one of the most interesting points online, is that most friendships are based upon a common interest, and that’s something that won’t go away.

  6. Online friends are what work for me as well- and the more you connect with them and interact, the better your relation becomes.

    It is all about feeling, caring, sharing, and giving back. Offline friends are few and maybe dying it’s natural death for some, as we spend a major of our time online- so here is where we connect with some awesome people.

    I for one have made most of my new contacts on places like Google+, Twitter and then Facebook. However, we cannot really know the real person hidden behind the screen in online friendship, yet again should we bother that much- as long as you have a friend to share things with- though with due course of time, the more you know the online person- the more you know them in real.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Harleena,

      Giving back is important. I have many examples on online friendships that are “dying” because one of the persons in the relationship is only receiving and never giving back. And by giving back I’m talking about replying to comments on his own blog, visiting the blogs of the people who are commenting on a regular basis, and sharing personal information. It’s sometimes easy to forget that a relationship has two sides, and that both people will need to be receiving some kind of benefit from it (and the benefits can be whatever, as long as it makes you feel good) 🙂

  7. Jason Ball says:

    I make it a point, a mission, a never ending pursuit, to meet the people I know through online interaction first, and to introduce them in person ideally, to others in my network.

    In fact I built an offline & online personal brand around the concept to support me in that pursuit, while like everyone, being so busy.

    I honestly shake my head at all the talk about Facebook Killers, Online this, SEO and the misguided (IMHO) way people discuss Social Media.

    The way I see it, it’s a big window, cross between a virtual business networking event & a communication method. It’s awesome, and the fact it’s online doesn’t really come into it other than I can do my reading, research & engagement in my own time.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Jason,

      That sounds awesome. You are doing amazing things to market your business. I believe marketing is almost all about relationships, and a little about content (content is very important, but not by far as important as relationships). So, when you introduce the people you interact with to your network, then you are really helping them out. You are giving them benefits that will help them for a long them and in the end that will be very beneficial for you 🙂

      Brilliant.

  8. Ameena Falchetto says:

    Online friends are fascinating. You usually form your relationship based on a particular subject you are passionate about or is relevant to your current life situation.

    You have to opportunity to pick and choose.

    You don’t get that luxury in real life because you basically get the good with the bad!

    • Bill Dorman says:

      You can pick your friends; and you can pick your nose; just don’t pick your friend’s nose………..doh, I couldn’t resist……….:)

    • Jens says:

      Hi Ameena,

      Absolutely. I have a lot more in common with some of my online friends than with my offline ones. Some of my offline friends are my friends just because we went to High School at the same time, or lived close by, and the only shared interest that’s left is the love for pizza (but that’s enough for me) 🙂

  9. Betsy Cross says:

    I have many friendships online and off. But there seems to me to be an efficiency to my world where those relationships never require more of me than I’m able to give at any given time. One day I’ll get a phone call and I’ll deeply immerse myself in that relationship, where months can go by without seeing or hearing from people that are deeply rooted in my heart.
    I never have had more than a few close friends at a time. I’ll “go deep” with anyone as the situation arises, but I always have one, sometimes two “go-to” friends. They are the ones who just “click” with me more. I have a need to have very close friendships, whether it be online or off. But I know that I can only manage (terrible description!) one or two. Maybe that’s because I have a large family?

    • Jens says:

      Hi Betsy,

      You have a very interesting description of how online relationships are. I also feel that I am in relationships that never require more of me than I’m able to give at any given time, and that’s perfect. In the offline world it’s different, many times I need to be there on a completely different level, when I’m not ready, and when I really don’t want to. So, what I’m saying is that online and offline friends are different, because I “use” them different. I’m online whenever I have the chance, just a few minutes like now. But offline, I need hours in order to talk to friends 🙂

      Thanks a lot for your awesome comment.

  10. Steve says:

    Frank,

    Online “friends” is a tough call. They can run the gamut from pure strnagers to people who you “think” you know well.

    I would say it is easier to meet people that are closer to you in thought and action.

    But friends are not always about people who are the same.

    I think as a friend “finding” tool. ONline is great. But to really “deepen” into a real relationship you have to meet the person in real life and see if that friendship chemistry really exists.

    SO online can be a great step 1. But to really become friends you need to have at least met 1 time to further the relationship to step 2.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Steve,

      That’s very interesting. I have never met any of my online friends before, but hopefully I’m going to. I can’t wait to see how you guys are in the “real” world 🙂

      But, on the other hand, I feel like I know you fairly well, just by connecting with you on your blog and via emails, social media etc.. so it feels like I know you because of your pictures, and the way your write. But, I agree that it’s on a different level.

  11. Sanjay says:

    I think online friends are better than offline, just like Raj mentioned. I do have many friends but I barely knew some of them, so I guess both have up’s and down’s after all.

    • Frank Anderson says:

      I’m pretty surprised at how many responses favor online friendships. Take your laptop to a coffee shop, have some real-life interactions, humans are programmed to have this need. You can’t fulfill all your needs online (yet).

    • Jens says:

      Hi Sanjay,

      I’m also a little surprised, like Frank, that so many people favor online friendships. I do too, well kind of. I love both, but they are so different. So I guess what I’m saying is that I really need both 🙂

      But, I think that I’ll eventually meet many of my online friends.

  12. Sandra McLeod Humphrey says:

    Online friends make for a great variety of friendships and I meet intriguing people I would never have met in my daily life.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Sandra,

      That’s the same with me. I have met so many interesting people, from all across the world. It’s awesome, and it’s all because of social media (like blogs) 🙂

  13. Bill Dorman says:

    Hey Frank, good to see you at Jens place.

    This post is very timely, because I attended a TweetUp in Orlando, Fl last night where I was able to meet in real life for the first time several of my online friends. It was not awkward at all and it was like we had known each other for some time. The other good thing is since we had been reading each other’s posts we knew enough about them to have something to talk about.

    I certainly feel like a lot of my community are ‘real’ friends.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking with it for today…..

    • Frank Anderson says:

      That is great to hear! I’d like to hope all real-life encounters would have this outcome.

    • Jens says:

      Hey Bill,

      Wow, you’ve been to a TweetUp? That’s awesome. I have just read about those happenings. I’m wondering if you met some of the people I talk to online. I’m not sure where many of them lives, if they live anywhere close to Orlando.

      I might have to take a trip to Disneyworld as an excuse to go see you 🙂

  14. Ana says:

    I think that all those things that define two people as being friends need to be altered in “the books” after this expansion of the social media. The way people interact, make and develop relationships is jusr not the same anymore. And who is there to judge what a real friend is? 😉

    • Jens says:

      Hi Ana,

      You’re right, if the definition hasn’t already been altered, it will be soon 🙂

      I bet we all have different definitions of what real friends are, but it’s hard to describe.

  15. reese says:

    I make friends both on and off line. Some of the people I met online when I was younger I am still friends with now. I liked making friends online when I was around my teens because I was able to choose who I want to be friends with. And mostly these are people who I share the same interest in music, films, and books. People tend to be more colorful online. The people you meet everyday tend to pale in comparison.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Reese,

      I’ve been contacted by a lot of people over the years, and some of them are still contacting even though it’s been several years since the last time we “talked”. I find it really fascinating how the Web works when it comes to relationships.

  16. Eddie Gear says:

    I know that I am bit late to comment on this post, But let me tell you that is very true Frank, you need to know your friends online. Even though these do not directly fulfill the requirements, there is this connection that brings people together. I am not sure what you call that. I’ve met some extraordinary people like Jens, Christian and so many other people that blogging for me has become an activity that I do with my friends and the best part is that they all have fun blogging. Good read.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Eddie,

      Thanks a lot for your kind words. And being in the same sentence as Christian, wow, that’s awesome 🙂

      The thing is that if we’re having fun online, and connecting with people, we know that we’re already successful, no matter what we’re doing. That’s part of my philosophy, and it has worked great so far.

  17. Brankica says:

    I definitely feel as some of my online friends are real friends. Especially that my close friends are 7.000 miles away, I feel closer to people I met online. I think you can find great friends online as long as you are not always asking for something but also giving a lot.

  18. Adrienne says:

    Great topic Frank!

    I would have to say I think that they can be the same for online and offline. At least for me.

    I only have a handful of really close friends. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of friends and some I’ve known the majority of my life. But I talk to my online friends a lot more than my offline. My offline friends lead busy lives, they aren’t online that much, they don’t have time to get together, etc. We stay in touch, but not as often.

    I have actually had the pleasure of meeting some of my online friends in person and that just made our friendship that much more special I believe. One of my online friends that I have met, we talk at least once a month on the phone too. We just really enjoy each others company.

    I think it’s all about caring to me. If they want to be there for you, give you advice, help you if you need a shoulder to lean on and you do the same in return, then that’s a real friendship to me. Definition or no definition.

    ~Adrienne

  19. olatoun-graceny says:

    Good question?, I ask myself sometimes too for example had a problem yestday lost some data and I ‘tweetd’ and ‘facebookd’ it was only a few of my fb friends that replied.i also had a terrible experience years ago… Met a male friend online we were so close that we were sure when we meet we will start dating but..the meeting was awkward. We didn’t talk again after we met. The point on common interest is actually true at least when u meet in person u can relate based on that… Like u think I think the real us comes out more online. We tends to express ourselves without reservations.

  20. Prosklitiria Agoraki says:

    I my case. OK they are real people and i already know in person most of them before add them as friends on FB, but really everyone has his own agenda and don’t give a s#$$% about me anymore…
    So what i have to say is that fianally i lost my real friends on FB instead of creating new!

  21. Ana says:

    For most of us working online, making online friendships is only natural. I don’t why those kinds of friendships can’t be as solid as offline ones.

  22. Michael says:

    I can’t feel anymore average – I have exactly 130 friends on facebook.
    Usually online friendships don’t last so long because you can’t see your conversation partner’s emotions and also replying usually takes a lot longer than in real life. Also online friendships aren’t really taken that seriously – losing a friend in real life is much more harmful than on the internet.

    • Amelia says:

      What I don’t like are the games.A friend and I knew someone who pretended to be 1 7different people.We believed we had been friends with these “17” different people but someone else had found out by suspicious grammar errors that it was all the same person.I believed I had met 17 friends which was only one.So much time can be wasted on online friends that I really think I want to spend more time with people in real life from years ago now.

  23. Amelia says:

    A friend and I had a mutual friend online we met on a social site,the old ICQ.She was from Canada..well maybe.She would agree 100% of the timw with everything we said,which I thought was a little fishy.Maybe she was afraid of rejection,so she never had a conflictinh opinion.When it csme time to meet my other friend from Arizona we did and got along wonderfully.The frkiendf from Canada said dhe woulf comde to my house in 2009 to meet us.It never happened infact we were waiting at the airport for her.She called us and said she was sorry she forgot to be at the airport.She called from a Minnisota area code.hmmmmm.Another friend told us she had met her but dhe gave a fgake name,actually she had 17 fake names it turned out but we thought we were writing to different people.

    I am not as trusting as I used to be.My real friend and I wasted 16 hours at the airport waiting for her.I wasn’t feeling well and felt a ton of resentment.

    Maybe she had been only all her life so she pretended to be all these diffrent perople but this experience wore me out.

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