let’s get real about online friendships

because I recently came across yet another article online offering supposedly wise advice about not getting too glued to your phone and spending more time with the people around you, who are apparently “real” in a way that your social media friends are clearly not.

Tell that to the very dear couple whose card and present I just got in the post, the people who have helped me think through such deep issues over the years since our friendship began on social media. They live the other side of the world, I’m highly unlikely to ever meet them, and yet they’ve been there for me at times when there just wasn’t anyone around me who could help.

God provides in all sorts of ways, including social media.

And really, this is just an extension of something that’s been part of human life since way before social media was invented. When I was a kid, we were encouraged to have penpals. Some of those turned into real, deep friendships. Sometimes it helps to share your thoughts and feelings with a person who isn’t part of your immediate surroundings.

And then there’s friendships with people who don’t live nearby so you sustain them through phone calls, or Skype, or whatever. Are those people not real either? or is it just social media that it’s fashionable to attack, as if the channel you use for communicating dictates how real the connection can be?

The latest 10-year-challenge trend got me looking at my blog archives and remembering where I was at back in 2009. There were several posts about fighting depression – that’s what was going on for me ten years ago, and I shudder to think how I’d have coped without the lifeline of being able to sit at my laptop, when I was absolutely not remotely capable of getting out of the house or picking up the phone to talk to anyone, sitting here and typing through tears and getting emotional support and encouragement from those “unreal” friends, most of whom live in different countries, most of whom I will probably never meet face to face.

I’m in a much better place now, thank God, in lots of ways. Including not being weighed down with depression. I’m interacting a lot more with people around me – God’s been giving me a lot more social energy, and it’s awesome! I have less time for social media now, and that means less time to nurture the friendships I’ve built over the years. This makes me sad, because some of these friendships go deep. Which takes me to the other stupid thing I read in that article: that social media isn’t good for going deep, just for frivolous exchanges. I guess that person only knows Facebook, and only at its most light hearted. On Google+ I’ve had deep personal conversations, sharing deep emotional stuff, I’ve been involved in serious discussions about a whole load of issues, I’ve had deep conversations about my faith – and yes, I’ve also engaged in the sharing of cat pics and silly memes, because, yanno, having a laugh together is also part of real friendships.

It’s not either or. Friendships come in different shapes and sizes, they can be born and nurtured in a whole load of different ways, using different tools to keep them going. So when I’m glued to my phone, that’s sometimes because, contrary to the myopic view of “social media = not interacting with real people”, I’m actually having a real, deep, personal conversation with a very real friend.

Yes, of course it is possible to overdo it. It is possible to get so glued to your phone that you ignore the real needs of those around you, and miss out on meaningful interactions you could have right here right now. Like so many things, it’s about finding the right balance – and that’s going to be different for different people, and even for the same person at different times. Like it’s different for me now vs. the me of ten years ago.

I have less time now for nurturing some of the friendships I’ve built online over the years – but that’s just because I’m busy with other stuff, not because those people are less real! The friends who helped me think through deep theological issues… the friends who listened and offered emotional support when I finished that course of therapy and burned that photo… the friends who listened and understood when I spoke of feeling like I’m walking through porridge, when I was in the depth of depression… the friends who allowed me in into their own personal struggles… They’re not any less real just because I haven’t met them face to face. In fact, there are people who know me face to face but know me a lot less.

1 thought on “let’s get real about online friendships

  1. I’ve met most of my closest friends online, and we don’t even live in the same country, so I understand exactly what you’re saying. Miles apart…but close at heart. :-) It doesn’t malm a difference whether I can reach out and grab them or not. God has blessed us with each other, and we’re not complaining about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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