The Difference Between “Friends” And, Uh, “Friends”

I stumbled on two thoughtful recent Guardian pieces on internet friendships. They seemed worth sharing for a Saturday post. The first: “How do you tell who’s a real friend and who’s just a ‘Friend’ on the internet?”:

….Being eliminated from a friend’s life used to mean ignored phone calls and mutual, public recriminations to third parties; today, it’s as easy as untagging yourself from an ussie and clicking unfollow on Twitter. On the other side, you’re at even more of a loss when you click on the profile of a Twitter friend with whom you’d had a long and fruitful online discussion the day before and see a blank space where it used to say “FOLLOWS YOU”. Every time you log-in, wherever it may be, you could find yourself invisible to someone you thought was your friend, and found out was only a fair-weather follower.

We live on the internet now. That whole idea about how we have to look up from our phones and digital devices to have real lives and experiences is over. There isn’t always a difference between emotion and emoticon. Our challenge now is to integrate our humanity into our online lives….

Then there was this one from early February on Internet “loss”: “How do you grieve when you lose an internet friend?” – and the author is not talking here about merely being “unfollowed”:

….In an age where the internet acts as a force-multiplier for sociability (if only for those who are native to it), it is now possible to develop friendships with people we’ve never met at all. Twitter is more than just a conversation; it is a schoolyard, a lunchroom, a water cooler. “Internet friends” are still friends – at least as much as “friends” on Facebook who we haven’t seen in years.

I found out that my friend had died late at night, and reflexively direct-messaged her boyfriend on Twitter. The next morning, I wasn’t sure if I’d made a mistake: I was a stranger to them, really….

It is fascinating what has evolved in only a decade or two. Once upon a time my (internalized) general rule was a “friend” was someone I knew in person and could call on the phone and he/she would NOT be stunned to hear from me. But if any of our mobiles rang right now and on the other end (without pre-planning of course) happened to be someone who “follows” us and whom we also “follow,” but whom we’ve also never met, let’s be honest most of us would probably think something was, umm, not quite right here. 😉

Free Stock Photo: Businessman holding a globe.
Free Stock Photo: Businessman holding a globe.

Facebook has indeed quietly greatly expanded the definition of the word “friends.” However, as our circle of “acquaintances” through social media has grown exponentially, that useful word “acquaintances” has simultaneously also receded from our regular vocabulary. We’ve certainly never heard anyone say, “I had to ‘un-acquaintance’ him.”

Yet inside we do know the fundamental difference between a “friend” and a social media “acquaintance,” although I think (as in the case of the second writer above) the “intimacy” created by social media can cause us now and then to lose perspective slightly. Then again, there is nothing wrong with offering condolences in a direct message to the unknown boyfriend of a deceased “internet friend”; it’s little different, really, than sending a note to relatives you don’t know on the death of a “flesh and blood” friend. And who takes offense at a message of condolence anyway?

Those Facebook “friends” we know in person, but no longer see or see only very rarely, resume their places in our physical lives the moment we see them again in person. Last year, a college chum of mine from when I lived in Alaska passed through London with his wife. I had not seen him in person in 20 years, but we had become “Facebook friends” to keep in touch easily.

The moment he walked into the restaurant where we were meeting for lunch, I knew exactly who he was and he knew me. We spent several hours catching up in person. (What an old-fashioned idea!) I might not see him again for years – maybe never – but we are friends.

I saw a joke on Twitter recently about a couple who had “met” via Twitter and gotten married. Subsequently they banned each other from using Twitter ever again. Whether true or not, in nodding at an anecdote like that one we are also recognizing the power of social media. 🙂

Have a good Saturday!