Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Are online friends as good as physical-world friends?

The internet's changed the way we do friendship.  Our social circle's no longer limited to people who happen to be in our geographic area, or share our school, place of work, church or sporting team.  The web lets us find others with similar interests or politics or points of view no matter where in the world we are, or they are.  For a lot of people who are different, especially living in areas that may not be particularly tolerant or welcoming, it has been a lifeline.

by cherylholt on Pixabay
But online friendships can be very different from physical-world friendships.  On one hand you have someone you identify with closely but have never and probably will never meet in the flesh, with whom you share opinions and ideas but not physical experience.  On the other you have someone you were thrown towards by the lottery of fate and circumstance regardless of your compatibility, and your main bonds are those of proximity, shared experience and the brain-chemical witchcraft of social bonding.  Perhaps it's a testament to how much faster our technology is developing than our language that we even use the same word to describe such different relationships.

For a while now I've been turning the idea of online friendships versus physical-space relationships over in my head, trying to work out if the former was as good as the latter, better, or less good.

I think the answer is none of the above: they're just different.  The relationships work differently, they fulfil different needs, and they'll involve different sorts of people.

The opportunity the internet gives us to seek out others like ourselves is a great thing, particularly for people who are different; not just people on the spectrum but people of any sort of minority from disability to language to gender to liking a really obscure TV show.  If that's you, and fate's planted you a long way from your peers, the internet could be your only option to find them.  Finding them, finding out that you're not alone, can be a great relief.  It's not just about discussing the thing that makes you different, but the sheer luxury of having a space where you can fart about and have fun with other people who accept you and don't judge you for your difference.

But what online friendships can't do is the visceral physicality of being human.  They can't help you move a couch or bury your dog.  They can't give you a hug, dry your tears, hold your hand. 

Physical-space friends can do that.  They can be tangibly present in a way online friends can't.  They also share your physical reality - from the weather to the state of the local economy, there will be parts of your life that they get in a way someone at a distance can't.  With them, you can share the bonding that comes from doing physical things together and all the weird social chemical stuff that only happens when we're together face to face.

But they don't necessarily share our philosophy and values and love of 80s Japanese theremin music the way our online friends do.

I think we need both: the friends we can share a physical space with, and those with whom we share a deeper intellectual, spiritual or identity-based connection.

And if we're really lucky, the streams can cross and they'll be the same people.