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.