Keep your friends close and your Friends closer?

Online friends vs. IRL (in real life) friends.

This is something I see that’s constantly being discussed, especially on community-based sites such as Tumblr.

Some people only use Tumblr as a site to post the occasional pretty picture or inspirational quote on, but there is a huge percentage of Tumblr users that use it as a means to express their inner nerd about their favorite TV shows, movies, music, etc. On Tumblr, people don’t necessarily follow people they know, but rather people who blog about things they like. Instead of spamming their friends’ newsfeeds on Facebook, most of whom will probably not care, people come to Tumblr to gush obsessively about whatever it is they are into to followers they know who will be interested in what they are blogging about. This is why people who belong in various fandoms are drawn to Tumblr. They are able to form bonds with people through things they are passionate about, things that might not resonate with people they know in real life. They form in-jokes and develop particular tastes in humor that only those in the know would understand. You see the same thing on message boards and fan forums. It’s no surprise then, why people feel they connect with their online friends more than their IRL friends.

Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison discuss social network sites and make a distinction between “Friends” and “friends.” “Friends” are the people you know through social network sites and “friends’ are people you have friendships with in real life. They claim “the term ‘Friends’ can be misleading, because the connection does not necessarily mean friendship in the everyday vernacular sense, and the reasons people connect are varied” (Boyd and Ellison 2007). David Beer disagrees, stating, “The problem is that increasingly, in the context of SNS moving into the cultural mainstream, the ‘everyday sense’ of friend can often be the SNS Friend” (Beer 2008). Beer believes, given the massive influence social network sites have on our lives, it has changed our understanding of friendships. Therefore we shouldn’t make the distinction between “Friends” and “friends” because people are growing up and becoming informed by the connections they make through SNS (Beer 2008).

I have to agree with Beer on that point. The criticism that is often met with making friends online is that they don’t count because you haven’t met face-to-face. These friendships are shallow and you don’t know what the other person is really like and it impedes on your ability to make real friends.

But with the proliferation of online communication, they way we approach friendships is changing. Just because you met someone online doesn’t mean that relationship means any less to you than those you have with people you know in real life. The highlight of your day might be talking to someone you know through the Internet. Does the fact that you have never met that person in real life make that feeling of anticipation any less real?

A lot of people actually feel more inclined to talk to their online friends about personal issues rather than their real friends. Maybe they feel their IRL friends will judge them or they may feel too vulnerable discussing certain things with people they interact with face-to-face. You may not know what a person looks like or where they live, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discuss “real things” and form a meaningful relationship.

Speaking personally, I’ve made an IRL friend out of an online friend. My friend Nora friended me on Last.FM when we were in high school, and we used to discuss our favorite bands and geek out over our mutual taste in music. Through our conversations we learned that we had other things in common (ie: favorite TV shows, movies) and then we started following each other on Tumblr and became Facebook friends. When we both started going to school in Manhattan, we began hanging out in real life, and we’ve been maintaining our online and IRL friendships ever since. Like Beer said, social network sites are changing the way we connect with people and go about starting and maintaining friendships. I initially met Nora online and now we’re “real friends,” but the bulk of interactions still take place online. Am I supposed to classify her as a “friend” or a “Friend?”

The implications of whatever label you put on someone is subjective. I know personally, I have friends on Facebook whom I have met in real life and haven’t talked to in years. Certainly, I feel closer to the people I have shallow conversations with through Tumblr. But then there are people I’ve only met once or twice in person but talk to them constantly via Facebook. Then there are my real friends who I have known all my life that go to other colleges and the majority of our interactions are done via Facebook. Are these people “Friends” or “friends?” I think it’s impossible to separate all of these things into just two categories.  Whether or not there should be a distinction, it should be up to the social network user to decide.

Leave a comment


  1. Tumblr fandoms are a great example of ways people form meaningful friendships online! Tumblr is where I go to obsessively discuss and post pictures of my favorite male celebrity (who I will not name here because I don’t think this kind of obsessing belongs on my social media class’s blog, but I will say that this celebrity may or may not be a professor at NYU and his name may or may not rhyme with Frames Janco). ANYWAY, It’s amazing how many people share my strong feelings for this celebrity and, unlike my physical world friends, they don’t get annoyed when I gush about him. In fact, they encourage my obsession by reblogging my comments/videos/photos of him. In response to the image you included in which the character wishes his “real life” friends liked Harry Potter as much as his online friends, I feel as if I don’t care that my real life friends don’t appreciate my affection for my favorite celebrity because I can always find people online who do. In fact, having online friends who share my feelings is perhaps more rewarding and beneficial because they can post links and articles that describe what my favorite actor’s upcoming projects are with detailed information instead of just verbally telling me about something he’s doing. I’d rather read about this online because I can read several people’s comments and reactions to his projects and easily watch/share any related video clips and media.

    Tumblr is also where I go to find and post pictures of funny cats, and that simply cannot be done in “real life.” But I guess that’s a different story.

    Thanks for posting about Tumblr! I enjoyed your examples.

    • lauraportwoodstacer

       /  February 10, 2012

      Love that you’re referencing the idea of fan cultures, which have been a huge area of social media interest and research. I wish we had more time in the course to talk about this use of social media – maybe we can find ways to incorporate Frames Janco-style obsession into some of the other topic areas we’ll be discussing. 🙂

  2. lauraportwoodstacer

     /  February 7, 2012

    excellent use of lolcat to illuminate an analytical point!

  3. shiggins311

     /  February 10, 2012

    Great post, Karen! I completely agree with your points about making friends on the internet versus “in-real-life”. I, too, had an experience where I met a friend while playing video games online years ago, who then started to go to school in New York. We met up and clicked like no other! After years of chatting on AIM and on Playstation Online, I guess it came to be a surprise to me that the relationship could sustain itself IRL.

    My mother and father, who divorced a decade ago, also managed to meet friends online. Both used dating websites like to meet significant others in real life. Needless to say, it worked, and both have been in relationships with people for over three years.

    I would even pose the idea (something I kind of touched on in my post but not fully), that “hybrid” friends can exist; friends that blur the boundary between Friends and friends. As a commuter to school, I only have a handful of friends at NYU and a few on hand back home in New Jersey. The rest, who are friends from my town who were in my grade in high school, go to college out of state and therefore I only keep up with them via texting and social networks during the semesters. So from September to December and February to May, these friends are online Friends. The other months of the year, I see them in person every day and are friends. Like you said, just because friends are online some (or all) of the time, does not make them any less meaningful. If they bring you joy and make you smile like “IRL” friends, then carpe diem.
    -Simon Higgins

    • lauraportwoodstacer

       /  February 10, 2012

      Love the idea of “hybrid” friends!! Great term to capture the way a lot of our relationships actually work. Even my closest friends and family would probably count as hybrids, since some of the most meaningful ways we interact are using social media.

  4. Karen, you have such an insightful blog post! Let me start off by saying I too have a Tumblr, and agree with you about its use. Through using it, people are able to actually have a voice or be passionate about the things they love. It does create a warm environment where you are able to meet other people (followers) without even knowing them. But again, would these people be “friends” or “Friends” according to boyd and Ellison? They believe “friends” are those people who we don’t really know but are just friends with through different social media networks. However, would this be the case with Tumblr? On Facebook, our “friends” are those we may know through school, work, etc. However, because Tumblr is so expressive, you are able to show whom you really are through your posts, pictures, gifs, etc. Doesn’t this show your followers who the real you is, therefore getting to know you as a person, even if it is through the internet?
    I think these social media networks do allow you to facilitate and foster friendships, but sometimes you are able to create new ones that you never thought you would have before. Just as we talked about the World of Warcraft study in class, I know of an example in a similar online game where two people met and sustained a relationship. My friend met her current boyfriend playing the game Counter-Strike. They were from two separate states, about to enter different colleges. They began to talk through the website, which lead to conversations through instant messenger, to becoming friends on Facebook, and finally video chatting on ooVoo. They formed a relationship, which they met face-to-face several times, and have continued seeing each other ever since. They have been dating for three years. I feel this is a counter argument to what boyd and Ellison have to say about “friends” versus “Friends.”

    • lauraportwoodstacer

       /  February 10, 2012

      Nice example, Evelina – maybe you can bring it into next week’s blog post too!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: