Virtual or IRL: Why Online Friendships Matter (And Are Mostly Better)

Remember the Internet in the early 90s, when the sound of dial-up haunted your dreams? For those who don’t remember what dial-up is and why the Internet was a fucked-up place to be at that time, consider yourselves lucky. You didn’t have to wait for hours, unable to use the phone, while your sister chats someone up online. You didn’t have to worry if the Nigerian prince you’re talking to is a fraud or if the little girl sending you pictures is actually a middle-aged FBI agent. You didn’t have to face the dreaded “a/s/l” question every time you go online. You didn’t have to….*breaks down*

I don’t think anyone in my age group would argue that the Internet was a scary place back then and people you met online were not to be trusted. It was no place for an impressionable teenager, and you can’t possibly foment lasting relationships through it.

But a lot has changed in the last two decades.

A few months ago, I attended a senatorial debate between candidates from the two major political parties in the Philippines.  I was live-tweeting the debate via my phone and I kept praising one candidate in particular, Risa Hontiveros, because she gave such informed answers (she didn’t win, but the vice president’s inexperienced daughter and a man so vile his words made someone commit suicide did, which shows just how screwed up we are as a country).

Anyway, her supporters started talking to me via Twitter, sensing a kindred soul. One of them in particular even helped me get home after I got lost in the weird place that is Mordor Quezon City.

One does not simply walk into Quezon City.

This Good Samaritan and I got to talking and aside from sharing several political ideologies, we discovered that we have a lot of things in common. And that was the start of what is now a great friendship.

I have never seen her before, I have no idea what her voice sounds like, I don’t even know what part of the country she’s in right now, but she’s my friend. And that friendship matters, and is more or less better than most of my other friendships.

This has happened to me before. Right now there are about a dozen people in my life who I consider friends–I met them through Tumblr and we hit it off there. And my relationship with them is no less relevant that my relationship with my offline friends, sometimes even more so because online friendships are typically more…substantive. 

“There is a certain kind of honesty that we allow ourselves when we neither see this person every day nor share with them a common history. We come together without the baggage and appearance that follows us around in almost every other encounter, we can be the unfiltered versions of ourselves we often only allow when we are not in overtly social situations. We can be quiet and independent and still talkative, still sharing, still open completely with someone else. This does not mean that your online friends automatically know you better than anyone else, only that so much of the pressure that can initially accompany friendship is absent.” (source)

Okay, wait. I’m spiraling out of control here. Let’s make it more streamlined. Here’s why I think online friendships are great:

  1. They are based on similar interests. The entire foundation of most online friendships is the sharing of similar interests. Because how else could you have found each other in the overpopulated pee-infused public pool that is the Internet? You could have been fangirling over Percy and Annabeth, or you could have both been shipping Hermione and the Sorting Hat, or you could have told him you had sex with his mom on his Star Wars sheets during a heated MMORPG session, or maybe you met each other at a chatroom for shark porn enthusiasts. The important thing is, you share a common interest. And based on experience, once you talk to each other, you’re gonna realize you share a buttload of other interests. That common interest is just a springboard for a full-blown friendship.
  2. The people involved appreciate each other more. Think of it as a normal relationship vs. a long-distance relationship. A normal relationship is easier to do and requires much less effort, but the mere fact that your partner is right there beside you kind of waters down the whole thing. She’s always there, so sometimes you end up ignoring her or not appreciating the fact that she’s right there. With long-distance relationships, you appreciate each other more because you’re working for it. You want it to work. That’s an incentive. And in terms of online friendships, you don’t even have to worry about the other person cheating on you because who cares if he has other friends?
  3. The people involved are more honest. Okay, we tackled this above, but let me put it this way: with friends, you don’t have to worry about being judged. But sometimes, you can’t tell your friends everything, because there are some secrets just too difficult and/or painful to share. There are no similar limitations with online friendships. You haven’t seen each other, your parents and friends don’t know about your online friend, it’s very possible that you won’t ever meet, so you’re more open. Your internet friends just get you in a way your real friends won’t, and will never judge you based on the number of GIFsets you post in a day. And everyone knows that unburdening yourself of your problems is great therapy.
  4. It’s easier to talk. In real life, you can’t talk in paragraphs or whole essays without someone interrupting you. You don’t usually have time to gather your thoughts and form a coherent speech before someone judges you for the scattered ideas you managed to blurt out. You don’t have that problem with online friends. You have all the time in the world. If not, you can always blame it on bad Internet connection. (But this isn’t really important since if you’re really close online friends, you’d be well-versed in Fangirling 101 and would be talking with ‘THIS’, ‘OMG THE FEELS’, ‘asdfghjkl’, or *dies*.
  5. It’s easier to make friends online. Some people are just pathologically shy. I’m one of those people (shut up). Sometimes, you just can’t muster enough courage to talk to that cool dude who you know also watches Supernatural and ships Destiel. Over the Internet, that isn’t much of a problem. Even the most socially-awkward penguin irl can make a friend online. All you need, like I said above, is to have common ground that can be used as a springboard.

But of course, there are also huge problems with online friendships, and in the interest of balanced news, here they are:

  1. Developing a crush on an online friend is nothing short of emotional suicide. When you’re friends, the distance between you is a pain in the ass. When you start falling in love with them, that pain-in-the-ass becomes completely heartbreaking.
  2. Fights can drag on for years. There is nothing weirder than fighting with an internet friend. Though, on the one hand, they are not involved with the grating ins and outs of your everyday life which often lead to many friend fights, they have become enough a part of things to actually get to you emotionally if they’re not around. Also, people are easier to avoid online than off. So you can get on your high horse (or..er, unicorn) and don’t come down forever, hoping that the other party will be the one who’ll initiate the make-up chat. Oh, this shit can really drag on for years.
  3. A breakup with an online friend can be devastating. When you have a falling-out with a real life friend, it’s easier to accept because let’s face it, you had every chance in the world to make it work. But with online friends, not so much. You are emotionally-invested in the friendship equally (or even more so) compared to a real-life friendship, but you can’t do anything but stare at your empty Messages box on Tumblr, refreshing the page like an idiot, waiting for them to send you something. Ugh.

Some people are so narrow-minded that they can’t even believe in online friendships. “What, friends? Without meeting? This is ridiculous! Listen, there are the true friends, the friends you have in real life, and the online ones, the people you just talk to sometimes, when you feel like it, because it’s pleasant, funny, interesting, well, because you get along.”

Because you get along.

That would be the only way to know you are friends. “Because you get along”. Not because you get along perfectly, or because you get along enough. But it works.

The fact you’re communicating through keyboards and a screen is a mere detail.

“Recently, one of the individuals I met and developed a close friendship with online passed away. I was not expecting it to impact my life as much as it has. I cried quite a bit and felt guilt and sorrow. I went through every emotion and stage of grief, all for someone that I had never met “in real life.” But the emotions I felt and continue to feel are indeed incredibly real, and so this is real life. It was a real life friendship that can no longer exist because one of us no longer exists either. A person who had become a part of my life was quickly taken out of it and regardless of the lack of in-person contact we shared, the loyalty, trust, and adoration found in most friendships were still all present. With all of those feelings consistent in our friendship, does the fact that we never met in person make our friendship less meaningful? I don’t think so. The feelings I felt were not fake, nor was the life I felt them in. It was in real life.” (source)

I’ve lost a couple of my online friends. One through an accident, three to depression and, eventually, suicide. I went through all the stages of grief when that happened, and I will punch your face in if you tell me that what we had was not a real friendship just because it was online.

I don’t think I can put this any better than Molly Cushing, who I’ve been shamelessly quoting in much of this blog post. Here’s another gigantic block quote (or just read her post here, it’s easier):

“Yet, for one reason or another, online friendships are often viewed as less meaningful than ones with a physical presence.  The contrast of views between communities like Tumblr, Twitter, or even the gaming/ tech industry in general and the rest of society is somewhat jarring. With television shows like Catfish, the public perception of online friendships is that of deception and lies. I’d be naive to say that part of online friendships doesn’t exist, but I believe it is such a small percentage compared to the sincerity shared between individuals on online communities. I would argue that I may know some of the people I met online better than some of the friends I know in person. Granted, many of the individuals I formed online friendships with, I have met in person, but to be honest, nothing changed within those friendships. Our physical encounters, despite being comprised of very fond memories, did not really increase the value of our friendship. Which leads me to ask, how are online friendships any different than ones based in person? Personally, I would argue that there are no real differences once you get down to what truly makes a strong, lasting friendship.

I have met many wonderful people on the internet who I consider to be some of my best and most cherished friends. Any lack of physical interaction has not cheapened or lessened the value I place on those friendships, nor has it made dealing with the loss of such a cherished friend any easier. When two lives interact sincerely, nothing is more real.”

Here’s another block quote from a lovely Thought Catalog article:

“Few things break my heart more than hearing that these friends aren’t “real.” Are our conversations, the ones that last hours and cover topics I’ve never talked about openly with someone before, not real? Are the secrets we keep for each other not real? Are the jokes we create between us only a figment of our collective imagination? No, of course not. We are real, as much as any other friends are.

And yes, at one point, they were just “strangers on the internet,” but everyone starts as a stranger. Only the very special ones will ever be called “friend”.”

I cannot be as eloquent as that so I’m just gonna say this: to people who think online friendships are less meaningful than ones in real life, here’s what I say to you.

SUCK IT.

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5 thoughts on “Virtual or IRL: Why Online Friendships Matter (And Are Mostly Better)

  1. Thank you so much for the wonderful support of my article and integrating it into your fantastic post! I completely agree with the points you’ve made. I think your list of cons is spot on but based on what I’ve experienced and the points you’ve made as well, the pros almost always outweigh them.

    • Your article was amazing! I had to stop myself from copy-pasting the entire article and just saying, “Here guys, read this. I wanted to write about this but someone more awesome has written the perfect thing!” Thanks!

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