Thursday, May 30, 2013

Virtual people, real friends

Another week, another survey claiming to reveal great truths about ourselves. This one says that – shock, horror – people are increasingly open to turning "online" friends into people they'd think worthy of calling real life friends. To which I can only say good: Quite right too. If there's a more perfect place for making real friends, I have yet to find it. However, when surveys like this are reported in the media, it's always with a slight air of "It's a crazy, crazy world!" And whenever the subject crops up in conversation, it’s clear that people look down on friends like these. In fact some members of my family still refer to my partner of six years as my "Internet Boyfriend".

It's the sense of shock that surprises me, as if people on the internet were not "real" at all. Certainly, people play a character online quite often – they may be a more confident or more argumentative version of their real selves – but what's the alternative? What's the thing that's so much better than making friends in a virtual world? Meeting people at work? Perhaps, but for some, a professional distance between their work selves and their social selves is necessary, especially if they tend to let their guard down and might do or say something they will later regret. And are people really much more themselves in pubs than online?

Far from being the home of oddballs and potential serial killers, the internet is full of like-minded people. For the first time in history we're lucky enough to choose friends not by location or luck, but pinpoint perfect friends who have similar interests and senses of humour or passionate feelings about the same things. The friends I’ve made online might be spread wide, geographically, but I'm closer to them than anyone I went to school with, by about a million miles. They’re the best friends I have.
For people like me who might be a little shy – and there are plenty of us about – moving conversations from the net to a coffee shop is a much more normal process than people who spend less time online might expect. The benefit is clear – you cut out all the boring small talk. What could be better? There's no trying to slowly work out whether you think similarly or have the same kinds of life experience, or whether you really do have enough in common to sustain the friendship – all that is done by the time you meet because you've read their comments or their emails or their blog.
Obviously, there will always be concern about the dangers of online friendship. There are always stories going around about "man runs off with the woman he met on Second Life" or people who meet their soulmate online and are never seen again. But people are people, whether online or not. As for “real” friendship dying out, surely social networking is simply redefining our notion of what this is in the twenty-first century?

So, is it really that odd that we're increasingly converting virtual friends to real, physical ones as well as the other way around? Frankly, I now think it's weird to do much else. Call me naïve, call me a social misfit, I don't care. Virtual people make the best real friends.
 Adapted from an article by Anna Pickard, The Guardian, Friday 2 January 2009 

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