Home > Random Musings, Writing > Real vs. Imaginary: The Debate about Internet Friends

Real vs. Imaginary: The Debate about Internet Friends


The other day, I ended up debating the merits of getting to know people via social networking. The conversation went roughly like this:

Me: Yeah, but I have friends there. [As in, a certain state.]
Person Who Shall Remain Nameless: But that’s not REAL. That’s the Internet.
Me: head/desk

 Arguably, one of the fantastic things about the Internet (thanks, Al Gore!) is that you can interact with people you otherwise wouldn’t. In the case of that girl you always avoided in high school or that horrifically bad ex-boyfriend, that’s a downer. However, I believe that it’s mostly a wonderful opportunity.

Before the Internet Age, where no one had cell phones and answering machines weren’t standard, it was a lot tougher to learn things. It was also a lot more difficult to meet people in your field if you’re a writer, for instance. Conferences aside, how would you do it? A writing group, a class, through a friend of a friend.

 Now, I can talk to a writer friend living in another country – or on the opposite coast. If I have a question, I can ask it. I can offer editing advice. I can commiserate over a nice glass of wine. Hell, I can even Skype.

Like most things, I think that the Internet is a tool that can be used for good or evil. Sure, there are creepy, bad, disingenuous people out there. But they are everywhere. They’re kind of legion. So, is it right to dismiss the merits of forming relationships via email, Twitter, blogging, Facebook and whatever else?

I don’t think so. I think the Internet is the new pen pal. While I don’t encourage anyone to dash off to meet a stranger in a darkened alley, let’s take that after school special type fear OUT of the equation.

There are a handful of people I’ve “met” on the Internet. A number of them are people I consider close friends. A few even have my cell phone number. We know each other’s birthdays. We talk about our troubles. We share family photos. We even have inside jokes. When one of us disappears for a few days, we check in.

Isn’t that a friendship? Yes. Without a doubt, yes. We’re all just geographically challenged. (Like I was back in high school whenever we had to label a bazillion countries on a map in World Cultures class. Talk about a world in which I FAIL!)

The argument against internet socializing and networking is the age-old fear: you don’t really know who that person is! He/she/IT could be an axe-murdering clown!

But, at the risk of boiling everything down to nothing, we don’t really know who anyone is. Do we? I can count so many people that I’ve met in my day-to-day life who turned out to be different than advertised. Not literally advertised. I’m not into the whole mail order husband thing.

I’ve had friends from school and work who have turned out to be crazy, creepy, selfish, rude, and pretty much thisclose to some form of psychosis. Perhaps that says something about my friend-picking skills. I don’t know.

There are a lot of people I know on Twitter who, if they were nearby, I’d buy them a drink. Or go out to dinner with. Hell, there are a few (you know who you are) I’d even take a damn train to meet. Especially as a writer, you get to know someone through their words and actions. You can do that on the Internet. Most people don’t have a reason to lie, and even if they do – who can keep that up for very long? Like all facades, they crack and crumble.

Honestly, I don’t know how to explain this properly. A lot of people have their minds already set about this. But even at my age, people balk about the Internet Thing. Maybe because I grew up with it, when the Internet was shiny and new, I don’t have those same reservations.

What do you think? Do you have reservations about socializing online? Are there people in your life who automatically distrust internet friendships and contacts? What do you say in cases like that?

  1. March 17, 2011 at 9:00 am

    I’ve found lately that it’s becoming relatively easier to find friends through social media than in real life. More often than not, we turn to it when we are thrown in potential friend-making situations, situations which are mainly awkward or boring. We take out our phones and other gadgets to not have to endure the boredom or awkwardness of not having anyone we know to interact with. And then this action becomes a signal to those around us that we’re not interested in interacting with them.

    I’m not trying to generalize, but I know I’m guilty of doing this and I see it everywhere I go, from lines at Starbucks to parties where not everyone knows each other. I feel that we avoid the discomfort usually associated with meeting new people by turning to technology, where it works as a barrier. And not having to deal with the in-between aspects of friendship face to face we tend to connect better with others through writing and social media. We avoid the personal baggage like body language and eye contact and go straight into conversation.

    • Ali
      March 17, 2011 at 9:17 am

      I completely agree with your point. There is a downside to technology. People have become…addicted, I guess. Those who can’t put their cells down, who are at a party — but aren’t actually interacting with anyone. I had a conversation about that last week, and it is something I don’t get. I love my blackberry, and I enjoying tweeting. However, if I’m hanging out with a friend, I don’t take calls — and I don’t text them from across the room (something I’ve seen done).

      I didn’t mean to imply that people should rely solely on social networking. I see that it has merits and drawbacks. When we lose things like eye contact and body language, I do think that can be a disservice.

      • March 17, 2011 at 9:24 am

        I didn’t mean you had implied that at all, I just sense that people are becoming more prone to ignore real world interactions because they tend to be challenging compared to internet based interactions. But all the same I think it’s great to be able to meet and get to know someone who lives on the other side of the world, even if we do never meet them in person.

      • Ali
        March 17, 2011 at 9:28 am

        You’re right. People are becoming more prone to ignoring real world interactions. It makes me sad. I look at people who can’t hold a conversation — let alone spell properly — and I wonder how they’re going to function in the world at large. Plus, the lack of proper grammar makes me twitchy, but that’s a whole different post! 🙂 I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. Thank you for reading!!

  2. March 17, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I would even argue that in many instances, friendship forged through the internet can be MORE real than friendships made face-to-face. There’s something about being separated through computer screens that can make people more honest and open than they potentially would be in person, especially at the start of a relationship.

    I think the stigma of meeting people online is gradually fading, especially with the advent of online dating sites. People are seeing more and more often that friendships/relationship started via the internet can be long lasting. Hell, one of my brother-in-laws met his wife through Myspace.

    But, I don’t think I need to preach to you my thoughts on the validity of internet friendships. 🙂

  3. March 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    It is nice to have that Internet-barrier when finding new friends on the web, although it makes us rely on our words more than our body language, which makes me wonder if society is losing that ability, that Spidey Sense when someone is saying one thing but their body is projecting something else. One of the more interesting things I’ve run across are the writers in the humor community. I spent a lot of time chatting with them prior to a humor-writing conference, and thought they were these fun, witty, confident folks. When I met them in-de-flesh, they were insecure and a little whiny. Go figure.

    But if you’re in my neck of the woods, stop by and I’ll buy you a drink – alcoholic or coffee-nated, whatever you prefer.

    • Ali
      March 18, 2011 at 8:50 am

      It’s funny, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people are only funny in writing–but very shy/insecure in person. I’ve always written the way that I talk (in blogs, at least). Sure, sometimes, I have the benefit of taking a minute while thinking of something to say, but if I’m not a)not sarcastic or b) making some kind of movie or literary reference — I’ve been body snatched. *grin*

      You make a great point, though, about losing the cues of body language. That really does matter a great deal, sometimes.

      And, btw, the same goes for you if you’re ever in Jersey. I’m buying. *grin*

  4. March 17, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I am very shy and socially inept in person, as well as have a huge aversion to phone conversations (I don’t know why – I was told that with my mental disorder it’s quite normal, which I thought was hilarious). So, it’s actually easier for me to interact with people via the Internet. It’s not that I don’t want to meet them in person – I do. But I think the fact that I got to know them before meeting them face-to-face will make the meeting much easier.

  5. March 18, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    One of my favorite people is a girl I met online named Ali. And my super-duper favorite boy in the world is a guy I met online…and married. 🙂
    Great post!

    • Ali
      March 21, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      I happen to think that you’re pretty great, too, Luann! *grin*

  6. Jessica
    March 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I think that the whole internet friendship thing is great. I’m facebook friends with a few people whose Xangas I’ve been reading for 7 or 8 years now, if not more. A few of us have met up and hung out, and we text or Skype or whatever, and it’s loads of fun, and we’ve become very close. I don’t think it makes a difference how you wound up meeting if you’re treating each other as close friends.

    However, I do think it sucks when people you could contact in person would prefer to contact you through technology or social media. Nothing is more annoying than calling someone up to hang out and having them text back “What’s up?”

    • Ali
      March 21, 2011 at 2:00 pm

      I agree with you, completely. I loathe it when someone responds like that, instead of picking up the phone or whatever.

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