Are Virtual Friends Inferior to Physical Friends?

At the beginning of 2011, Simone Beck committed suicide after posting a suicide note as a Facebook message. As expected, the continued debate about true friendship and the value of online friends reignited. Having read several of these debates arising from various events, I believe the debate is primarily among those who are in their mid-20’s and older. For those who are younger, their friends have always included a blend of friendships made or partially developed through online communication: Facebook, MySpace, texting, email, etc. For older people, especially those who are not comfortable with, or have animosity towards, computer technology, these “virtual” relationships are suspect at best or an indication of the demise of civilization at the worst.

The article title is a little misleading because all the friends under consideration are physical beings though they may not frequently enter the physical space we occupy. The question addresses the most common way we communicate with these friends or where these friendships were formed: in person or online.

Many consider a friendship that is formed in cyberspace does not have the value of a friendship formed in “meatspace” (physical reality). However, devaluing an online-only friendship because it takes place through email, chat, or social networking sites reflects an “old world” mentality. Why is the relationship with the people who just happened to buy the houses around me or work in the same building considered inherently more valuable because of physical presence? Some neighbors and coworkers are nice people and I like them, but we have nothing in common but physical co-location. I have some online friends that I have not met physically, or limited encounters, but I enjoy communicating with them and feel a connection with them.

Why is sitting on a front porch talking about uninteresting info or gossip considered an inherently more valuable interaction than an excited chat/email session with someone across town or across the world on a subject that we are both passionate about?

Then there is personality. Although I do many public facing things, I am an introvert. It is difficult to call people out of the blue no matter how much I like them. I’ll call for business or to address an issue if a call requires it, but it is very difficult to call my friend to share a joke or ask what they did today. I will however check that person’s FB page and exchange email jokes or discussions. I communicate much better and exchange on a deeper level via the written word than through phone contact. Many devalue the email communication compared to the phone call. Other personality types need to have someone in front of them–physical presence–and do not enjoy the virtual exchanges as much. Neither personality type is the right one, just different ways of interacting with the world.

There are friends from high school, college, prior jobs, and cities I’ve lived in that I would have no contact with today if it were not for LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. because we are no longer in the situation that brought us together physically. Does that mean our continued friendship maintained online is plastic? Do I have to fly/drive across the company to get back into physical presence with them or call them weekly to turn it into a genuine friendship?
Of course I have people on my Facebook and LinkedIn friends lists that are acquaintances but we share some common interests and have good discussions. I don’t expect them to drop everything in my hour of need but I’m sure they would show concern and many would offer genuine help if I needed it. But I had those same kind of relationships in high school, college, and every place I worked–physical co-location and communication methods were irrelevant–but no one questioned the value of those relationships.

Remember this when spending time with friends: If you are spending time with friends physically, don’t interrupt that time to interact with people online (email, Facebook, Twitter). That’s just rude. If you are at the birthday party–be at the party. If you’re having dinner with friends–be there. If you need to step away to help a friend through a difficult crisis through a phone call or text, do that. But that’s an issue of courtesy and respect for those with you and has nothing to do with technology or the value of the friendships.

In the Simone Beck story, many criticized the lack of help by those on her “friends” list on Facebook. However, upon reading the article, it appears that Simone Beck’s “no local” FB friends (therefore not real friends by some people’s estimation) were trying to get phone and address info to help her and urged the local “friends” (physically co-located and therefore “genuine”) to act. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jan/05/facebook-suicide-simone-back

What is your answer to the title question? Do you have strong relationships with people that you only know through online interactions?

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Categories: Relationships

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