The Complicated Nature of Online Friendships

The year 2012 is still pretty young, but already it’s been hard on a lot of people I care about. One friend has lost a parent, another is coming close to the same fate. A friend has been diagnosed with a disease, many friends are without money. Some friends are miserable in their jobs and are wanting nothing else apart from change. Other friends would give anything to have any job at all.

I know all of these things, but for the most part, I’ve never met any of these people in “real life.” In fact, in many cases I have no idea what their voices sound like. I don’t know what their facial expressions are like as they listen to someone else talking. I don’t know how their intonations work.

And most of all, I don’t really know what I can do to help.

Still haunted

It’s been just about 6 months since I found out that Bruce Serven had killed himself and had taken his young son with him. I still think about that almost every day, but then, that’s kind of weird, right? Because I never heard Bruce’s voice. I never met him in real life. I have no idea what he looked like beyond the pose he held for all of his online avatars. I talked to Bruce in some way almost every day I was online for a good year, but I had no idea he was unemployed. I had no idea that he had so much going on in his life. I never dug deeper. I never asked how he was doing, to the best of my knowledge.

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So now, I am more careful to keep track of people I talk to online. If someone goes quiet I check to make sure they’re okay – sometimes online silence can be like a frown or a pout in real life, right? If someone is having a hard time and they’re talking about it online, I try to make sure I at least send them a note so they know they’re not just talking to the air. Sometimes that can be enough. Sometimes.

The catch

Of course, what I have discovered is that in many cases, if someone tells you about something that is really bothering them, you, as an online friend, are left utterly helpless. You don’t REALLY know this person beyond your online interactions. It’s not your place to yell at a family member for them because you may not even know who their family members are. You’ve never been to their home. You’ve never been to where they work. If something bad does happen to an online friend, in many cases you will not be on the list of people the family will call. You’ll find out via a newspaper article like I did when Bruce died.

And you can’t really ask for anything more than that. Even if you talk to a person at length online day after day, you’re not that kind of friend.

Or are you?

All of this came to light because one of my friends going through a hard time had posted something about it to Facebook and not very many people indicated that they saw it. If you scrape away people who just don’t know how to react in those situations, the reality is that most people just simply didn’t see it. Between the fast moving Twitter stream and Facebook’s Edgerank, the chances of you seeing something an online friend posts are pretty minimal. These are the kinds of newsbits that humans have always passed along in phone conversations or meetings for coffee. That was the way we made sure we knew what was going on. That was how we knew how to respond and what to do.

In the online world, there’s no shortcut to being “real” friends. Paradoxically, the next step of friendship is taking it offline somehow, and eventually, hopefully, meeting face-to-face.

False intimacy

After news of Trey Pennington’s death spread, Jay Baer wrote a post called Social Media, Pretend Friends, and the Lie of False Intimacy. It’s an amazing post that still gets comments 7 months later. Jay had considered Trey a friend but had not known that Trey’s life was in such turmoil. They had met in real life, so it seemed like they were even more “friends.” At the time, I disagreed with Jay’s assessment of the online world a bit. Even in the real world, one seldom knows 100% what is going on with someone. A family member of mine seemed to die suddenly but we found out they had been dying of cancer for at least a year. There was nothing online about that.

But after Bruce died, my illusions about online friendship melted away pretty quickly. I have tried ever since then to build more solid connections with people I care about. The transition, however, is a rough one, because as you get closer to people online, you learn more and more, and you discover there is less and less you can do because of the nature of your relationship.

I have not yet found a good way to balance this conflicting series of messages. Get closer, but always through the wall that is the virtual nature of your friendship. With friends spread throughout the US and throughout the world, getting to sit down for that cup of coffee can be the ultimate challenge. I don’t even get to sit down for coffee with my local friends very often. Where do we go from here?

I am pondering all of this as I continue along in my online journey. I am anxious that people are falling through my fingers every day like sand because I just can’t talk to everyone all the time. I don’t want there to be another Bruce. But I’m now fairly certain there’s nothing I can do about that.

What do you think about this conundrum? What is your experience?

Image Credit: via Creative Commons

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