Are online friendships “real”?

Online friendships are a strange thing. It used to be that you made your friends by meeting them at work, school, or some sort of club event. Whatever was the case, a key element was the physical meeting. In this digital age, though, we are forming more and more friendships without ever having met each other.

I often talk about my friend in LanzaroteSouth Africa, or Coventry, and the obvious question gets asked:

How did you meet them?

Well… on the Internet.

Oh right, so you haven’t actually met?

Not in person, no.

And suddenly the whole thing feels a bit inferior to a “proper” in-person friendship.

You might recall a post a while back about a friend called Dan. Dan was a contributor to this blog, fellow Formula 1 fan, geek, and all round good guy. And we never met. He didn’t live a million miles away (the UK isn’t that large, after all) and we didn’t speak every single day, but I definitely counted him as a friend. The post I mentioned was one informing you that he had died unexpectedly and, just after that, the whole arena of online friendships came to the front of my mind. So many people would think that a friendship based on e-mail, Twitter and team blogging isn’t a strong one but, let me tell you, when I heard he had passed away it felt every bit as strong as the death of my wife’s and my Best Man.

When I look at the friends I have online I realise I genuinely care about them – I’m happy when they tell me something good has happened to them, and I’m genuinely distressed when they tell me something bad. I would talk to them about much the same stuff as I would someone in the same room. We don’t get to actually do stuff together, but we get to talk about our common interests and differences.

And so I’m wondering, is it fair to see online friendships as inferior? Does meeting in person actually matter? Or is it becoming increasingly irrelevant? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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Comments

  1. There is nothing inferior or of lesser quality about meeting folks online, Chris. I have so many valued friendships (yours included) online because you can tell that these folks are genuine. Many think that there is something fake and phony about being on the internet but you can tell the phony relationships as if they were in your face. We have a sixth sense about human nature, and no one can hide behind the monitor. :-)

    This is a fine post with a touching story (sorry about your friend) that I am off to read next.
    On a related note, have a read of this post, also about friendships and how people come together to help out. It's a fine example of people being real. You can find the article at http://bit.ly/dv7qh6.

  2. Mo "Mad Dog" Stoneskin says:

    Sometimes they do feel inferior. I tend to compartmentalise my online time, i.e. I'm not a 'day blogger' so I will go for days without actively blogging. So it's quite easy, on a weekend for example, to forget about my online pals, as I'm spending time with family and 'real-life' mates. But bizarrely, there's something about the friends I've made online that allows us to communicate in a very real and sometimes deep level “just like that”. The number of times I've been missing from the blogosphere for a while, for whatever the reason, and people have checked up with me, leading to me spilling the beans and real conversations following, is countless. I've felt massive support from my online buddies.

  3. I think actually meeting people is becoming increasingly irrelevant – and I believe the friendships we build online can be even better than those offline.

    We're a good example Chris – we've probably “talked” at least 5 or 6 times a week via email, Twitter, phone calls etc, and yet we've never met.

    When I think about me “real life” friends here on the island, we probably meet up every ten days or so and have no contact in between!

  4. Chris I value your frindship. ALthough we also never met It think that we certainly will do things for each other that friends do.
    We could have met when I was over in teh UK, but time was a bit short.
    Are online friends reall. Well what is a friend then begs the question?
    A friend is some one you can trust.
    A friend is some one you can rely on
    A friend is someone who is there for you when you need them
    A friend puts you first.
    A friend has common interests
    A friend has respect for you
    A friend only sees and promote your good points
    A friend is honest
    A friend has the same mindset as you

    Need I go on. If online people meet these criteria, are the not then to be called friends.
    Yes, online friends can be real.

  5. cadilacjax says:

    Hi Chris
    Glad I found your blog…welcome to the forum by the way.
    As for your article I find it a very interesting topic. I would love to see what others have to say as well. For me I think there real. I've met some very interesting and helpful people on here that I look forward to meeting in person someday.
    I find it awkward as you mentioned when during a discussion with family and friends I bring up an online friends name. They don't really understand but they don't get online and tweet, email and facebook or blog with each other like we do either. I have met some genuine folks online that I hope I do get to meet in person someday but if I don't I will still consider them lifelong friends. Some of these people who misunderstand will someday see what they've been missing out on.

  6. I really value the friendships I have developed with folk mainly through Twitter. I am on facebook too and its true I have 'found' some old friends as well as making new ones, but my tool of choice in recent times has been twitter. While its true there is a lot of spam in there, the “follow Friday” sessions have opened up the world to friends of friends and then a new friendship develops. I have valued the support received from twitter friends when i've had tough times and in return, I have been privileged to share with people who are going through difficulties. I do like face to face friendships and would love to meet the people I talk with online. Infact, I have met with some of them. One couple have stayed in my house and we have in return been to their house and shared a meal while passing through. On a second meeting with a twitter friend, I was able to hold their 3 week old baby. Now that was special and came from an online meeting through a friend of a friend of a friend! There are some online friends I would love to meet but logistics are not easy. One day maybe. In the meantime, I continue to value the online community and the support, fun, laughter, encouragement….friendship… that it brings.

  7. Thanks very much – I'm glad to have you here and to be part of the forum!

    I wonder if that awkwardness will start to fade as online friendship becomes more normal. I certainly have some “real life” friends (like Dan Rous below) who get the online thing, but others don't. As you say, though, maybe one day they'll realise what they were missing out on.

  8. Any (online) friend of Chris is a friend of mine! :-)

  9. Thanks Dan. It's weird as well how we end up having mutual friends who neither of us have met! If I'm thinking of the same couple you're talking about I remember “meeting” them on Facebook first, and in real life later.

    In that case the “in person” part only confirmed that we were already friends, having formed that relationship online.

  10. Good point there Mike – I have more contact with you than with many of my “real life” friends who live nearby. And I think you're right about meeting becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially as voice and video communication becomes more and more common.

  11. Very well put, Robert. I think you're spot on there.

    Maybe if you're ever in the UK again, or if I find myself in your neck of the woods we'll have to try and get together!

  12. Yeah that would be great.

  13. Thanks for sharing that Mo – there can be a great sense of support online, can't there?

  14. Hey Jimi, thanks for the comment! I think you might have hit on something important there, that many people think the Internet is full of false or phony people and while there are *some* who fit that bill, you'd find that in everyday life too.

    Thanks for the link to Kevin's article – it slightly messes with my head that we both chose to write about online friendships on the same day!

  15. It is funny that we feel like we have to “clarify” our online friends. I'm always saying, “my friend so and so… well friend online…” as if they're some sort of imaginary friend.
    I love what Steve Knight said at the Theology After Google conference… “if it feels like community to me – it's community.” (

    )
    Agreed. If it feels like a friendship — they're a friend and if it feels like we're living in community — we're living in community.

  16. Good to have you here Johnny! And always good to be able to keep in touch online given that I don't get to see you in person as much as I'd like!

  17. lol Thanks JD – that's how I feel sometimes when I talk about online friends! Like people think they're imaginary! I know the real connection I have with people I've never met, but am acutely aware others think it's odd.

    That's a great way to think about it though (I love short sayings and soundbites, so that works for me): If it feels like friendship – they're a friend.

    I guess an example would be the way you work with Thomas and Stewart on the podcast but (I think) haven't met either of them? And the fact that you and I have never met either.

  18. yes you are thinking of the same couple. Seem to remember they found us first through our love of F1!! I actually find it easier to 'get to know' people online as some of the awkwardness is removed.

  19. exactly! Right on!

  20. Today there are two types of friends – your online friend and your friend. I feel like someone cannot truly be your friend without that contact. To contradict myself a little though, does meeting someone once that you speak to online and then not again for along time mean that they become true friends? I don't think so .

  21. Thanks for that! It's good to have someone with another point of view. What do you think it is about the personal contact that makes a difference?

  22. wcs53 says:

    Hi Chris,

    This is a very interesting question. Like JD, I often have to find myself clarifying friendships with the word 'online'. However, I have made a good number of, what I consider, strong friendships through twitter and facebook and places like that. I've known you since the 80's, because you came and lived in Orkney for a few years when I was still there, but I doubt that we would've reconnected in the kind of meaningful way that we have without the online social stuff. Also through this friendship I have picked up a number of good friends, such as Dan, Thomas, Andrew, John, amongst many others, only one of whom I have met in 'real' life so far. I think that the meeting in person part is, as others have mentioned, becoming more irrelevant, although it is great if the opportunity comes along to actually happen.

  23. Hi William,

    That is another great element of social networking – I've been able to reconnect with a few people I'd lost touch with. It is great to take the opportunity to meet up when it presents itself too – and I was glad to meet up with a few Twitter buddies for the first time last night at the Rob Bell gig.

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