The Changing Face of Friendship

I read a short article in Psychologies Magazine the other day about friendship.

Apparently new research has suggested that being able to predict how a friend would react in a given situation is a sign of how strong your friendship is.

Now, if you know me at all you know that in Real Life I’m not the most sociable, being chronically shy and having only a few close friends rather than a large group. By far most of my contact is online with friends I have made through Twitter and Facebook, with some existing relationships BF (Before Facebook) being strengthened through the confidence boost I get by not having the pressure of face-to-face contact (Funnily enough, in a professional capacity eg when I was working as a nursery nurse or a guide at Beamish Museum, this pressure was actually relieved. Will blog about this in its own right I think). And you do wonder, every now and then, whether the doom-predictors and nay-sayers are right and that our relationships are becoming more shallow and suffering through not having more face-to-face contact. Until now I’ve rather timidly disagreed but this research is making me stick my neck out and disagree more emphatically.

If this is a good guide of friendship, then I have made some very real, lasting and solid friendships and I have a big network of friends. I can say that there are many people I count as online friends that I could confidently predict their reactions to a whole range of situations. Up until now, I may have mentally categorised these friendships as Online Friendships (other than a few), or had an argument prepared in my head in defence of these relationships for those who’d say they were less valuable than real-life ones. On the contrary, I cannot think of many Real Life friends that I could do a similar exercise with with the same confidence.

Of course, this is assuming that you accept this as a good test of how well you know someone. I’d say it’s an extremely good test, as it indicates an empathy with someone. I might not know where someone went to school or who their first crush was but I’d bet I could tell you their reaction to a piece of news or a government policy. I’d say that was far greater depth of friendship and understanding than most people have with some of their work colleagues who they see, in the flesh, every day. It’s merely a shift in understanding of the concept of friendship. A computer doesn’t have to be a big clunky tower and monitor, a book isn’t necessarily a bunch of paper within a cardboard cover. Friendships don’t need face-to-face contact to thrive and blossom.

So, to all my online friends reading this, here’s a toast to the changing face of friendship. And to you.

12 thoughts on “The Changing Face of Friendship”

  1. Becca, I couldn’t agree more. My daughter is forever telling me that the friends I have made on line aren’t ‘real’ friends and I always disagree. For various reasons, I don’t have many friends in real life although the couple I do have mean an awful lot to me. But the new friends I have made through twitter, facebook and – oddly – scrabble, mean just as much.
    I would be lost without them, Just…lost and very, very lonely. Only last night I spoke to my husband about how much I missed a friend I made shortly after my virtual life begain. Her name was Eileen. She was about 20 years older than me and lived in Philadelphia and was quite ill. I loved her. We would call each other and sent each other little gifts – tokens really. I stitched a sampler for her daughter when she got married and we shared a lot. Eileen died 3 years ago, but I still remember her birthday and still weep when I realise she is gone.
    She was a real friend. And you are too.

  2. Thanks Nettie – you know I think how much your friendship means. There’s still a gap in people’s minds between Real Life friends and online Friends and in some cases this is probably true. But IMHO the distinction is fading.

  3. Becca your second paragraph resonated strongly with me. I too have been chronically shy most of my life. My parents will disagree but there is a distinction between going through the motions of interacting with people and making connections. I always found it odd but a friend of mine (who unfortunately developed paranoid scitzophrenia and became involved in ideas of islamic extremism) provided me with a link to a website when I was 16 that discussed social phobia. He shared my fears and nerves about being around people and being able to identify the issue helped me begin to work against it (its hard to fight shadows in your head) and for that I will forever be grateful to him. In the mean time as I shut off in the ‘real world’ but for a couple of close friends (who I have no contact with now sadly) I retreated into an online world where I could communicate with people but like you not have to deal with them face to face… I guess I find the proxy communication through a computer as offering people the chance to THINK before speaking. Like you I found an outlet which completely turned my problems inside out – Until recently I could not go to a house party, and still find myself struggling with nerves today, but I could and did stand in front of 200 people 5 nights a week to perform at the York Theatre Royal and at the ARC theatre in Stockton. I can also teach 28 teenagers all day every day and meet and greet people in my work in the museums and not feel a flutter of nerves. I take those situations as an example when I am struggling to say to myself “You can do this”.

    I’ve admired the Familia Brown since I first met you all, and while me and Andrew often have completely opposite political beliefs I value the ‘friendship’ however you define it that has developed. I only wish my circumstances were more regular to allow a meet up once in a while!

  4. Love this post and you make great points as ever.

    Chris, I wish we could meet up more too as I love your company! With risk of this becoming a love-fest, I admire you very much. We must meet up again soon.

    As for the political differences, that’s neither here nor there. And anyway…I’m right ;p

  5. I completely agree with you, Bex. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from shyness, but I do suffer easily from people-fatigue. I’ve had a lot of ‘friends’ in the past who have done very little but eat away my time and goodwill. The friendships I’ve made online have been so rewarding and are so precious to me, I can’t imagine life without them. If that makes me sound weird and unsociable to some people, then so be it. I know who my friends are x

  6. To me, the connections made online are not the same as those made in ‘meat space’ — but both are valid and would count as forms of friendship, much in the same way as old friends and new friends both count, perhaps. We are all complex beings and friendships can be defined in many ways. Online, I am more hesitant perhaps due to the ‘permanency’ of things written, but also more outrageous in the things I might write in posts and stories (fiction, innit), so online friends get to see an unusual side of me. Offline, I’m surrounded by family and friends and I’m probably… dead normal?! That’s OK, too. Reckon?

  7. Thanks Jo. Maybe there’s more of an element of choice in online friendships too? I don’t know lol! But thanks for commenting, I agree completely.

  8. Hi Martha, thanks for commenting. Yes, I am certainly bolder online with what I will say, although it can be more considered and clear than if I was in a physical debate or argument with someone, so it’s fair to say that what my online friends are getting is much closer to the real me – for better or worse lol! Offline, I retreat a lot even with some close friends and family and I know I don’t come across very well a lot of the time.

  9. This really resonates with me too and you express it beautifully, as ever! I live in a village and because it’s a small pool and I’m a bit of an eccentric, I have never really ‘clicked’ with many people here and life can be quite lonely. Thank goodness for my online friends without whom I’m quite certain I’d have gone utterly potty! I’ve learnt so much, become interested in things I’d never have even found out about without online friends introducing me to them, met people in real life via online friendships who’ve enriched my life in so many ways, and I’ve been given the confidence to make some of my writing public, which I’d never have done without the support and encouragement of online friends.

  10. I work from home and care for my elderly father as well. (Not that he is really hard to care for but I could not leave him for a night!) Having on line friendships has allowed me to “mix” with people, especially people with common interests. It helps on the days when, although I love my father dearly, I feel trapped by the situation I am in. All I can say is, “thankyou”.

  11. I enjoyed your post. Predictability may be one factor of measuring friendship, but it seems incomplete on its own. I think friends don’t just know you, they encourage you to be *more* yourself. In that respect, online friendships have great value because you have personally selected the people you follow based on your shared interests and their history of interactions with fellow Tweeps.

    In “real” life, it’s pretty impossible to walk in a room and identify people who share your sense of humor or appreciation of word play or your interest in *whatever* (beekeeping, writing, gardening, ecology, history, music, etc.). With Twitter you can find and follow people, watching them until you feel comfortable reaching out for a conversation and friendship. It’s an introvert’s dream, really.

    Everyone who has commented so far seems to be somewhere on the spectrum of introversion. We think, we silently process; we don’t think or shout out loud. Social media gives us time to rally our thoughts and express them in our truest form. So in many ways, we are “more real” online in that we share the truest versions of ourselves. And our online friends respond to that and encourage us.

    It’s not like this is a new phenomenon. People have corresponded among friends and family, and had lifelong penpals who were initially strangers. These correspondents have enhanced (and sometimes changed the course of their lives) although they may have never met in person or met infrequently.

    My online relationships don’t replace my friendships, it enhances them. And it fills in many of the holes that exist due to location and circumstance. St. Louis is conservative, socially stratified, and distrustful of new ideas. I am none of those things. I would be intellectually and emotionally starving if I couldn’t reach out to online friends.

    I am deeply grateful every day for the many blessings I receive from online friends like you. We share interests, a laugh, an observation, an encouragement, or a consolation. Often about things I would never reveal to someone I didn’t know well or can’t find in my current social environment. This makes my life and my heart bigger. So thank you. All of you!

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