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 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.
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 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.