Thursday, November 5, 2009

Relationships 2.0: Are you my real friends or are you just virtual?

A few weeks ago, Dr. Jim Taylor tackled the subject of Relationships 2.0 in The Huffington Post. He wrote:
Of all the areas of life that computer and communications technology seems to be impacting the most is its influence on relationships. Mobile phones, texting, facebook, and Twitter are just a few of the ways in which relationships are being redefined, established, and maintained by technology. We have entered a new era of Relationships 2.0. Read more...
That my two-year involvement with blogging and social networking has allowed me to pursue my love of writing and has opened the door to professional opportunities is almost incidental to what I really cherish about my online activities--the connection I've gained with like-minded people.
My family's move from Chicago to Central Indiana five years ago left me feeling isolated and lonely. My closest friends--the women whose friendship and support sustain me--are now scattered across the United States. The closest are at least three hours away. These are women who have known me from eight years to nearly all my life. They have been with me through various life stages,ups and downs, doubts and successes. In some cases, we share similar tastes in books or television or restaurants or adventure. In some cases, we share political views and social concerns. In some cases, we are very different but maintain bonds forged in the schoolyard decades ago. We speak in the short hand of long relationships. These women are not so much friends as sisters.
Somewhere in "The Girls from Ames," a book I just read about a group of 11 women and their decades-long friendship, there is reference to a study that found once women reach middle age, rather than adding new friends, they tend to deepen the relationships with women they already have. I think that is true--at least it is for me as I near 40. Surprisingly, I have found myself unable to make strong connections with women I've met in my new home. I am stymied both by a hectic schedule and a long commute, and a culture that often feels alien to me. Some of the very things that are fundamental to who I am seem out-of-place in a very red, very conservative town, in a very red, very conservative state. My neighbors are good people, but often our beliefs and goals and interests are quite different.
I am an African-American, late-marrying, liberal, secular womanist with no bio kids and a fondness for books, dry humor and alternative music in a town where most folks are white, early-marrying, conservative, church-going parents with a fondness for country music and "Two and a Half Men." Ain't nothin' wrong with Middle America. I was born and raised in the Midwest. And, here's the thing, I love my town and my neighborhood, where neighbors say "hi" and bring over cookies at Christmas. I love that I can drive less than a mile in one direction and be in the middle of a corn field or drive the other way and hit Nordstrom's. My stepson attends an excellent school and has flourished. My house is just the cozy sort I always dreamed of owning--all cedar and stone with a fenced-in yard for the dog and a big fireplace that is perfect this time of year. I am close to good food and art and culture in the mid-sized city 30 min. to my south and just three hours from Chicago and all that it offers. I like it here, but despite all the things that I like about my town, I fear I would have soured on it long ago were it not for the Internet, where I have found the personal connections that I do not have nearby.
When I began writing online about the things that are most important to me, I soon found a small group of cyber-friends who inspire me, who write things that seem like they tumbled from my own mind, who share some of my beliefs, opinions and obsessions and challenge others, who crack my shit up on the regular. I found my tribe--folks who speak my language--online. We e-mail, DM each other on Twitter, recommend each other for writing jobs, meet up to run 5Ks, give advice, send notes of encouragement to one another, share family pictures, sometimes even talk on the phone. I have not met most of my virtual friends in person, yet what I derive from these relationships is important to me. In fact, I credit my cyber-relationships with sparking some important personal growth over the last two years.
But Taylor cautions that I shouldn't mistake the virtual relationships I cherish for real relationships:

My concern focuses on the more personal and social aspects of Relationships 2.0. For example, I hear many people talking about all of the "friendships" around the world they have made on the Web, whether through social networking, gaming, or dating sites, or sites that reflect their beliefs (e.g., political or religious) or their interests (e.g., technology, sports). There's no doubt that the Web has enabled people everywhere to connect and communicate like never before, but I would argue that connection alone doth not a relationship make.

Just like the use of the old term, virtual reality, many people in Relationships 2.0 have what I believe are virtual relationships, yet consider them to be real relationships. Virtual relationships have all the appearances of real relationships, but they are missing essential elements that make real relationships, well, real, namely, three dimensionality, facial expressions, voice inflection, clear emotional messages, gestures, body language, physical contact, and pheromones.

Is Taylor correct? For all the in-depth conversations with like-minded folks in forums, for all the Twitter conversations that last too late into the night, for all the personal e-mail exchanges with virtual friends, are we losing the true meaning of "relationship?" Or, is new media redefining what relationships are? My online friendships may be quite different from my in-real-life ones, but I think they are equally as valid.

Virtual relationships are based on limited information and, as a result, are incomplete; you can know people, but only so far. When connecting with others through technology, you get bits and pieces of people - words on a screen, two-dimensional images, or a digitized voice - almost like having some, but not all, of the pieces of a puzzle. You get a picture of them, but you lack the pieces you need to get a complete picture of that person.

But virtual relationships can seem so real. I blog for a group of mobile-technology web sites and the email banter among the almost-exclusively-male staff is no different than if a bunch of guys were sitting around drinking beer and watching football. Despite very clear geographical and political differences, the camaraderie and support is amazing. Yet, would this group get along if they met in person? I don't think so. Perhaps that is both the beauty and the shame of online relationships.

Are not many offline relationships based on limited information? Take work friends, for example. The bonds we form with colleagues tend to be sort of limited in scope. We may, say, grab a drink at the pub after work, but not necessarily hang out beyond that interaction. Or, we may find that once one party moves on to another job, the bonds of friendship slowly fade. All-encompassing friendships are rare. Even my oldest female friends, who know me very well, don't know everything about me. I think in most relationships, we bond over commonalities and save the parts of ourselves that don't gel for other people.

I have a full real life. My best friends may not be nearby, but I do have companions to spend time with. I have hobbies and interests. My online relationships merely add to these things. I don't fancy that all of my cyber-friendships would translate to the real world. Some I am pretty sure would. Am I being naive?

What do you think--are online relationships real?



Snarkysmachine said...

One of my dearest friends lives on the other coast and we have never met in "real life". We have, however, shared joys, sorrows and the intimacies of friendship. Physical proximity isn't always the best way to determine one's commitment to a relationship. I have friends who live ten minutes away and I can't say we have gone to the places emotionally traversed by my west coast sista. She is my family. She is my heart. She's my person. It feels very real to me.

Fresh Peaches said...

Online relationships are absolutely real. I have one group of women in particular that I am extraordinarily close to despite having met almost none of them in person. We've laughed together and cried together. We've cheered each other on through schooling, new careers, weddings, childbirth, we've been a rock of support for each other through layoffs, miscarriages, the deaths of parents, and divorces. Many of us feel more support from each other than people we know IRL, and often feel much more free to open up to each other than we would to people we have to see every day. It's a beautiful thing, and it is every bit as real as any other sort of relationship.

Pamela Lyn said...

Great post.

The biggest problem with Dr. Taylor's argument is the assumption that "facial expressions, voice inflection, clear emotional messages, gestures, body language, physical contact, and pheromones" always add positive value to a relationship.

In some instances, they can actually get in the way of real communication.

I'm sure we can all recount numerous instances of people with whom we've interacted who misunderstood a physical gesture and thought our body language was saying something that it was not. Or the people who thought that you wanted a more intimate relationship when you were just being friendly.

Virtual relationships, on the other hand, often allow people (if they are being honest) to connect on a mental level. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the age when people actually wrote letters with pen and paper. How many times have we heard stories of relationships that were formed or maintained by the exchange of written correspondence.

All forms of relationships can be negative or positive. But the best relationships are based on honesty, mutual affirmation, healthy self-esteem, trust and respect.

Two of my favorite quotes on friendship are:

"The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him with his friendship." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson


"No person is your friend who demands our silence or denies your right to grow." - Alice Walker

Cindy said...

Sometimes I refer to my Twitter/FB friends as an adult cyber version of the childhood imaginary friend. That being said I would never have made connections with people like you, Jen & Diana at Disgrasian, a young lesbian in the Philippines without the cyber connection. There are many connections that are peripheral, but many are growing much as a typical friendship. I have the opportunity of in depth discussions on race and gender politics that don't present in such a daily dose in my "real" life. ...and yes, they crack me up on a regular basis too.

I also know that there are several (you included) in my cyber village I will be delighted to meet when the opportunity presents.

I know someone who uses an analogy of a house when describing friends. Some you allow on your front lawn. Others can come up on the porch. The very best of them are welcome to come inside. I think this works regardless of the origins of the friendship.

Anne said...

Internet relationships are definitely real. Obviously they encompass a range of depths - just like "real life" relationships. But I think they can acquire the same importance and validity as those you forge in person.

I got a very early start in the realm of online friendships. When I was 13 or 14, I began hanging around in online text-based role playing games. I was one of the only girls, but I received a warm, adoring reception, and while I interacted with hundreds of people in that venue over the course of the next 5 or 6 years, a few of them became genuine, important friendships. To wit: just yesterday, I spoke on AIM to my online friend Stephan whom I first started talking to when I was 14. He was about 19 at the time - can you imagine that friendship occurring in real life? But because we were on a leveled playing field, we were free to forge a connection that only deepened with the years. He is honestly one of the kindest and most lovely people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. We have never met in person, but I think that we're going to get to soon - I just moved to Michigan, and he lives in Canada just over the border from Detroit, so we finally have the opportunity! I am beyond myself with excitement. And all of this because of the open atmosphere of the internet. You have to be cautious of course, but it allows the potential to find people that you would never have found otherwise.

I've also had dozens of experiences with meeting people I met on the internet, and with only a few exceptions, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. The internet draws together new communities, whose members may be scattered around the globe, but who share a passion and viewpoint and find joy in connecting with one another. I think that relationships forged on the internet are one of the best things about the modern age.

Joan F said...

I know some couples who met online and are now happily married. I have a group of friends I met online in 1996 in a forum on MSN. Some have left the group and some have joined over the years but there are a few who have remained all that time. We have chipped in and helped when members were in need, bought memorials or flowers for those who died. We are there to cheer up sadness, comfort in illness, pretty much the things face to face friends do.

I don't like to go out much, am kind of a hermit, wouldn't have much contact with other people without the internet. I know people who have traveled to other countries to get together with online friends. I certainly never would have run into people from Britain, Europe and Australia locally but I have such friends online and learn more about life in their countries that I ever did in school. My vocabulary of non-US English has really expanded.

In a few more days I will turn 74. I am so lucky to have been born and hung around long enough to enjoy this technology.

curlykidz said...

Absolutely real! Some of my closest friends are people I met online between 7 & 10 years ago. I live on the same block as one of them now, and one of us does morning carpool & the other afternoon carpool. Another flew from Philly to Phoenix to be with me IN THE DELIVERY ROOM when I gave birth to my youngest... it was the second time we'd ever met "in person", but we talk almost every single day.

Virtual friendships can be very superficial, but that's true of "real" friendships as well.

Cheryl said...

My online relationships run the gamut, just like my not-online relationships.

Pamela Lyn has a good point about questioning the universal helpfulness about in-person cues. One of the people I consider a friend is someone who, like me, is often mistaken as aloof or standoffish or stuck-up when we're actually just introverted and sometimes shy. I don't think we would have managed a friendship if we hadn't met online first.

weemsrj said...

In my 3 years of blogging and 6mos. of social networking, and as someone in her 50s who’s totally grateful for all the rich new cyberfriendships that have come into my life as a result of blogging and social networking, I’m gonna have to side with Taylor on this one. I won’t argue with folks here who swear that their cybefriendships are as “valid”and satisfying as their real flesh-and-blood friendships. I will just say that from my perspective they are not the same.

Here’s how I know they are not the same. As fun and as gratifying as my new cyberfriends are, as much I enjoy exchanging info and pouring out bit and pieces of my day and my heart to my cyberfriends, I know not to confuse cyberfriends with real the flesh-and-blood friendships that have accompanied me into my 50s. You know the ones that have survived not just the laughter and smiles, but the ones that have survived the falling outs, the hurt feelings, the misunderstandings, and the slights? Friends are friends not just because you’ve walked each other through the highs and lows of each other’s lives; friends are friends because you’ve stayed with each despite the many times you’ve wounded each other. Nothing about cyberspace makes you make up with folks you’ve had a falling out with. In fact, cyberspace makes it (so much) easy to avoid the messiness of friendship. Sure cyberfriends “kiss” and make up after huge fights. But all of us know that mending a friendship in cyberspace can not compare with the awkwardness, the dread, and the pain of mending a “real” flesh-and-blood friendship. Facing a friend you’ve hurt or who hurt you, and slinging, snotting, and crying it out face to face as you try to work out where things went wrong, who’s to blame, and promise to do better—that’s the friendship we miss out on in cyberspace. Better yet, that’s the personal growth we miss out on which I think Taylor is trying to point to.

Sure, you might say that you do plenty enough slinging and snotting it out with lovers, children, and extended family as you try to keep those relationships on course – and if you don’t ever have to go through that with friends then that’s just fine with you. But that’s the point. Slinging and snotting it out with someone you don’t have to love or live with, a friend, says something about you and builds a different kind of character in you. Maybe that’s Taylor’s point. Maybe not. It’s certainly my point. One day when husband is gone and children are gone, you will wish you had invested more in real flesh and blood friends who come by the house and plait your hair for you when you are too weak to plait it for yourself.

Forgive me for taking up so much ink on your blog. But the topic touched upon something I've been thinking a lot about. And you always manage to anticipate the questions I've been asking but haven't gotten around to blogging about yet. Thanks Tami!

n said...

One of my best friends, I have never met. He lives on the opposite coast. yet he has been there for me, supportive and loving and a comnpanion, in a sense, for over 12 years now. He IS a friend, just as back in the day before technology, people who had overseas friendships via mail were friends.

I grew up and am military now, so most of my relationships with family and friends are conducted long distance. Is my aunt not my aunt because I havent seen her in 10 years and only talk to her over the phone or send the occasional card?

My closest online friends and I speak on the phone, send each other gifts and are friends in every sense of the word. Long distance friends, but friends just the same.

PPR_Scribe said...

I share many of your feelings about Central Indiana--except in my case, I returned "home" here after being gone for a couple of decades. I recently wrote about the new joys and challenges that entails in terms of relationships with family.

With friendships--including some cyber ones--I can stay connected to others I feel commonality with.

But in my case, I think there is actually possibility of the non-face-to-face format resulting in *more* sharing than I might otherwise engage in. In some instances this is good--with my personality I have always interacted better in writing than in person. But this is something I do have to watch, especially as more and more of my online and "IRL" spheres begin to overlap...

Anonymous said...

many of these concerns are out-and-out extroversion bias. This guy is intent on ignoring the fact that yu get exactly what *you* and many internextroverts need from online interactions. He thinks the only real interactions are the ones that happen in physical proximity, probably because he is an extrovert or he is an introvert prone to being easily fooled or lead. I'm one of the latter, but I didn't find any of my disappointing relationships online. they were all in real life. I'd suspect that the same would go for finding people online.
Plus online relationships= a more silly irritant-free, if you want! It's like the benefits of LATs and commuter marriages, but possibly with more real intimacy. Not sure that's definitely bad, aside from lowering your drama tolerance or replacing closer loved ones with those who are "perfect" at a distance.


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