Tuesday, November 13, 2007

on real-life vs. on-line friends

I think this discussion about on-line vs. real-life friends that's been going on in several of my on-line communities is interesting. There's been some mention of a shared awareness of a lack of friends among the adults here on Multiply in their 30's. I went through the same thing in my 30's (and it extended into my 40's when I moved to NYC). I'm through it now. My problem now is I have to really juggle my schedule (thank you Google calendar!) to make time to see all of my friends. If anything, and I have trouble saying this, I have too many friends. I don't mean that any of them are a burden, but I am constantly feeling inadequate as a friend because I have to turn down so many requests to get together with people.

And that's my real-life friends.

On-line, the term friend gets a little murky. My friendships on-line are asynchronous. I don't have to be there for them at any particular time or place (and vice-versa). Also, as I think Sielwolf mentioned, there's a lack of sense of shared physical space and time which is palpable in on-line friendships. Further, I'm pretty sure that I am friends on-line with some people with whom I would likely not have a real-life relationship because we just don't share enough in common to sustain it.

I feel the same way about a number of people I know from work. I like them, I spend time with them in the workplace in that I'll sit next to them and chat at meetings, or stop by their office for a chat during the day, but if we tried to get together outside of work I have the feeling we'd quickly run out of things to talk about once we caught up on what was happening at work for each of us.

However, in both arenas, work-friends and on-line-friends, there are a much smaller number of people for which the limited context of our meeting, either at work or on-line, just sets the stage for our real-life friendship. Oddly, I have found that once I experience them in real-life, that context in which I met them, be it on-line or at work, becomes much less rich as a relational context and consequently transforms into little more than a way to schedule/arrange the real-life meetups. There's still the heartfelt e-mail here and there (or lunch away from the office during the day), but if they are geographically remote I find myself waiting to see them again to really experience the relationship.

I've made it a bit of a habit to meet people in person that I've met through the slashdot circle (and now here through multiply). I haven't decided upon a milestone in particular which they go from one category to the other, that is when an on-line friend turns into a real-life friend. I can't say it is just geography either. I've met on-line friends in real life who live within 50 miles of me who remain on-line friends even after I've met them, and I have others I've met only once or twice in real life who are definitely real-life friends even though the bulk of our actual interaction takes place on-line (because of their removal by geography and/or other life responsibilities).

I also am not willing to abide by the implied notion that real-life friends are somehow more significant friends. That's not true for me. Each of my friendships is unique and it "ranks" in significance strictly according to my experience of it, the context doesn't matter. Of course, I know well that what we can only know so much about someone from on-line interaction, I don't "trust" the self-declarations of someone I meet on-line as quickly as I do someone I've met in person.

But, even though I've never met Em, for example, I'm pretty sure he's a 30-ish IT guy with a wife and house. If our initial meeting had been in person it wouldn't have taken me nearly as long to develop that confidence. Also, when he's not on-line, not posting his lunch posts, or musing about the moment reflections, I miss him just like I miss real-life friends when I don't see them in a while. So, there's not as much difference as the popular denigration of on-line relationships implies.

I don't think you can substitute one kind of relationship for the other. Sam's post is a good example, if it was just sheer numbers of friends that mattered he wouldn't be feeling a lack of friends, he's got a very large following on-line.

Yet, I can also say that I have no real-life friends that make up for what I miss when I miss an on-line friend. I am missing one right now in fact. I have more real-life friends than I can deal with, but I still miss a person I only know from on-line who dropped out of sight recently.

Apples and oranges, I say. I like them both.

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