There’s been a bit of discussion going around for the last few days about online friendships. Most of the talk has been between Belghast and Braxwolf, with Bel writing that he treats online friends the same as offline friends and Brax doubting that online friendships can have the same depth as those found offline.
I have strong opinions on this topic!
Twitter sucks at depth
Brax’s post in particular seems to focus on Twitter as the primary avenue of online socializing, and how poorly it does in that role. And in this case I think Brax is totally correct because Twitter is absolutely terrible at in-depth communication. It’s also, I would argue, not what it was designed to do.
Twitter is a constant stream of information. Tweets are fairly impermanent — while a tweet does exist in archived form, as they slide down the front page of our Twitter clients we become less and less likely to read them. Trying to keep up with your Twitter stream at all times is not how it was intended to be used, and will probably just make you feel frantic and perpetually left behind. I found that I enjoyed the network much more when I accepted that lots of stuff would be said while I was away from a screen, and that’s okay.
Twitter is really great for meeting people with similar interests. It’s a great medium for telling funny jokes. It’s a really good way to get a general survey of impressions, and catch breaking news from around the world. Twitter was invaluable to me during the Ferguson protests, for example, because I was able to listen to a number of people who were on the ground and get first-hand information.
On the other hand, 140 characters on Twitter is not a great way to form deep friendships. I agree with Brax there.
Other online methods of communication do not suck at depth
I think Brax’s post did a disservice to online friendships by focusing on Twitter when there are a myriad of other alternatives that people use every day.
For example, for the last 5 years I’ve spent almost every workday hanging out in an IRC channel with the same half dozen-ish people. Some days we have a lot to talk about, from politics to travel plans to how to best get stains out of a carpet. Other days we just say hi and complain about the local weather. A few of these people I have never met in person, although some I have. I have never even seen a photo of one of these people! And yet this group is contained in my “inner circle” of friends. If any one of these folks needed me to inconvenience myself to help them out, I would do so without hesitation.
As for the concept that we can never really know someone from only their online communication… well, that’s just not true. Not to pick on Brax, but he doesn’t share a lot about his offline life and just from reading his blog and listening to his podcasts I can tell that he’s literate, kind, reliable, community- and family-minded, likes gadgets, and we both enjoy writing and playing MMOs. Those are pretty darn good qualifications for being my friend, and I would think the same whether I met him online or offline. Best buddies? Of course not! But a friend for sure.
And that’s not even getting into non-text communication. Guilds often spend hours together talking via voice chat, and YouTube has had the greatest growth of any social network, particularly among the younger demographics. I not only type at my online friends, I listen to their podcasts and watch their videos. I have Hangouts with them where we play tabletop games together, and follow their Spotify playlists of music that’s important to them.
You get what you give
So how do Brax and I disagree so much on the potential depth of online friendships? After much pondering, I think it’s safe to say that you get out of your online friendships what you feel prepared to put into them. Some people are totally satisfied with their offline friendships and aren’t really interested in doing the same online for whatever reason. And that’s perfectly okay!
Others, such as myself and Bel (I assume), actively look to develop online friendships. We write about our lives on our blogs, we worry about people on Twitter when they sound sad. We reach out over different media to people, and we feel kinship with folks who we encounter online and meet our individual requirements for basic friendship. (Similar interests, smarts, and a kind nature in my case.)
All in all, I disagree with the idea that online friendships cannot achieve the same depth as offline friendships. It seems more accurate to me to say that some people are not looking for depth in their online friendships, and therefore it does not exist for them. And that’s totally, absolutely fine, to each their own and yadda yadda, but those two are not the same thing.