Online Friends

Writer Michelle Sagara has been thinking about the phenomenon of “online friends” on her LiveJournal (an appropriate place, that), specifically here and here. Even more specifically, she asks her readers the question: “How many of your best friends are online only?” Which is to say, I imagine, who among your closest circle of friends have you never actually communicated with except through e-mail/IM/blog or journal comments.

For me, the answer is simple: None. With really only one exception I can think of (and the reasons for that exception being personal enough that I don’t particularly feel the need to share the details with the lot of you, save to say it’s not what you think, you pervs), the circles of close and best friends are reserved for those I’ve actually spent an appreciable amount of time with in the flesh.

To explain this, let’s take a moment to define the universe of People We Know, and explore how it relates to our relationships with people, online and offline. The universe of People We Know exists as concentric circles, which are, in ascending order of importance to the person at the center (and generally speaking with corresponding fewer people in each circle):

People We Know Of — These are folks whose existences we are aware of, for various reasons, online and offline. The most removed subset of these would be celebrities; rather closer to home would be people like friends of friends (who are not friends with us), people who comment on the same newsgroups/chat boards/blogs we do, other parents of kids in one’s child’s class, people whose blogs/journals we read occasionally but without comment, so on and so forth. We have knowledge of these people, and we may even have positive or negative opinions about them, but our interactions with them are minimal at best. And although we may know of these people, it’s not always the case they know us. There are thousands of people who read my site every day, for example, who never pause to comment; I am known to them, but the reverse is not true.

Acquaintances — People who you know, who also know you, and with whom you’d had some amount of contact, but to whom you neither feel nor engender a certain amount of friendly obligation. Acquaintance is a “friend-neutral” term, as surely most of us have among our circle of acquaintances people we don’t particularly like, both online and off. However, it is certainly possible to have friendly acquaintances, particularly online. Here at the Whatever, the vast majority of the commentors I group into the “friendly acquaintance” category — they’re interesting people, and I like most of what I see of them in terms of their comments, and I think by and large we’d probably get along if we ever met, and I certainly like the community that I see on the site. But most of them aren’t actual friends. Friendly online banter and casual enjoyment of one’s company is an excellent thing, but it doesn’t cross that personal threshold.

Friends — In my world, friends are people who you like, you find interesting, and whose company you actively seek, in whatever format. They are also people to whom you are inclined to feel obligation; as a small example, if a friend puts out a book, I will often buy the book not only because (thankfully) most of my friends who write are fine writers, but also because as a friend, I want my friends to succeed, and buying their books is a small way to do that (however, and I want to be very clear on this, I don’t keep tabs of which of my friends buy my books. That’s just neurotic). But more concretely for most people, the obligations of friendship include things like a sympathetic ear, a happiness in their company, and projecting to them (truthfully) a general sense that you like having them about.

I think it’s possible to make friendships and maintain them entirely online: I can think of several people with whom I have friendships who I have not communicated with other than through words on a computer screen. For general friendship, I think that’s a perfectly sufficient level of contact. However, by and large, this is the cut-off level for online interaction in terms of personal closeness.

Good Friends — These are the people with whom you share a more personal connection; the folks you’re comfortable telling some (but not all) the things you don’t bother telling other people, and the people whose back you’ve generally got and who have generally got your back. If you go out with any friend and they run a little short of cash, you’ll spot them; with a good friend, you won’t bother remembering how much you’ve spotted them because you know over time it’ll all even out anyway. Likewise, a good friend can piss you off from time to time (and vice versa) and it generally won’t affect your friendship.

This sort of friendship, I think, almost always requires contact beyond words on a screen, because — at least in my case — I need to hear and see the people in action before I extend out that sort of personal trust. It’s not a question of people online being deceptive, mind you. Some people are to their online friends, but (to be honest about it) since I’m not a really attractive young woman, it’s generally not been the case that I’ve had to deal with people like that. It’s more that people online are idealized versions of themselves — as scary as they may seem considering what and how much people let hang out on their sites — and to be a good friend, you have to see more of that person.

I flatter myself in being a very good judge of character, and I usually know within a few minutes of meeting someone whether I am going to want them as a friend or as a good friend (if I’ve already conferred friend status to them). But it’s really the case that I have to spend some amount of time with you first. Now, I will say that there are friends that I have online who I fully expect will get Good Friend accreditation once I meet them in the real world; indeed, I can think of at least one person who went from online acquaintance straight to good friend because they were just that awesome a human being. But that just reinforces the point, doesn’t it: Personal contact is essential beyond a certain level of friendship.

Close Friends — People you can count on, and who know they can count on you, and basically you obligate yourself to putting up with a lot of crap from them if necessary. These are the folks who get the unlimited 3am crisis calls and emergency pick-ups from strange bars, and who you don’t drop from your circle even if they start dating a real asshole (although you do get the privilege of telling them they’re dating an asshole, if that’s something you want). It’s even possible not to like close friends for reasonably long stretches of time but still consider them close friends. Basically you’ll put up with a lot because you get a lot, and you’re willing to put in the work to keep it going.

Knowing these people in real life is pretty much non-negotiable because I think becoming a really close friend is very much falling in love with someone, in that there’s something about the person that speaks to you beyond the rational and explicable, and while it’s possible to feel infatuated with someone without ever knowing them, that real “God, I want this person to be part of my life” feeling by definition requires human contact, especially if you want it to last beyond the infatuation stage and deepen into a genuine and continuing relationship.

Best Friends — simply put: You’d give these guys a kidney. Or a liver (a lobe, anyway). What’s more, you wouldn’t think twice about it (which is not to say you wouldn’t remind them of it whenever you felt like it). Needless to say, best friends take years to develop, and they definitely take personal contact. I also suspect that the number of best friends any one person can have is limited, because the obligation is nothing short of a marriage (and so it goes without saying your spouse damn well better be one of these, and at least ever-so-slightly above the rest on the priority list), and it’s difficult to invest the emotional energy, and the life obligation required for this.

Now, one of the interesting facts about good, close and best friends is that once you’ve spent some physical time with them, you don’t actually need to spend a lot of physical time with them — due to factors of geography and time, I haven’t seen some of my best friends in a couple of years or more. But I’ve made that personal commitment to them, and that (plus phone calls, IMs and e-mail) keep things bubbling along. Still and all, they wouldn’t be friends of that quality had I not spent time with them.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to make new good friends as one gets older is that it’s often the case that life keeps you from making the sort of contacts that allow that level of friendship to take hold. Conversely, I think that the online world makes it so easy to meet new people (in a fashion) and that people are always eager to make new friends, particularly new friends who share common interests (as they tend to do online, because one goes online where one’s interests lie). In my case, I know over the last few years I’ve made more friends online than I have made in my little town, precisely because I have more in common with my online acquaintances.

However, of the same period of time, nearly all the people who have become good and close friends have become so from face-to-face encounters. It’s axiomatic. Ultimately, no matter how you slice it, it’s the personal contact that seals the deal with a friendship. Friendship is about contact, and contact is a tactile thing; the mind may write the contract between friends, but it’s in the physical world in which that contract gets signed.

13 Comments on “Online Friends”

  1. I just want you to know that I’d give you a lobe of my liver. Of course, I’m very, very happy that you don’t drink and will probably never need it.

  2. Yeah, I was just thinking that. If anyone’s getting a lobe pared off in these “best friend” relationships, it’s probably me. Fortunately, they *do* grow back. The lobes, not the best friends.

  3. Wow, I have never seen it broken down quite like that, but I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head.
    I have a ton of friendly acquaintances, but there are only a handful of people in the world that I would truly call even close friends, let alone bequeath the title of best friend. My wife is the only one that truly claims that title.

    I read this post a little earlier today and have been thinking about which category the people in my life fall into ever since.

  4. You are exactly right about the ‘in person’ contact. I have two VERY good friends that I ‘met’ online and then met in person. We are each very quirky and a little off (but in a good way), which I suspected before I met them in person – but it’s that face to face that really cements the friendship.

  5. JamesG said:

    “I read this post a little earlier today and have been thinking about which category the people in my life fall into ever since.”

    Heh. Well, bear in mind that a) these are VERY general categories, with a nearly infinite amount of gradiation and variation within them, and b) just because they work for me doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll conform to anyone else’s life. Having said that, they are indeed fairly commonsense categories (in my opinion).

    Whatever you do, don’t TELL people which categories they fit into. Most them already know, and those who don’t are bound to be disappointed.

  6. I’d agree in general with the categories, but I would also add some further qualifications.

    The various “friend” strata are usually cemented by the independant actions of these people. All those that qualfiy as either “close” or “best” friends have either saved my ass or risked theirs to make the attempt. This means quite a lot to me, because I’m a total asshole who usually just deserves to be pointed and laughed at. Which isn’t to say that they don’t point and laugh at me, just that it’s not their only reaction if I need help.

    There’s also a reciprocity requirement for the upper strata. It’s often possible for one person to be a friend or good friend to another, but to have that other person not do the same. There are several people to whom I am carefully as good a friend to as I can be, and who do not behave as friends in return. Inversely, there are several people who treat me as a good friend that I, for some very assholish reason or other, do not treat well. Of course, it gets very confusing to describe when things are assymetrical, but luckily I’m generally both blunt and obscure.

    I’m not fun at parties, either.

  7. John,
    I agree whole heartedly that know one should ever know where they fall in that or any other list for that matter. The only exception being my wife; if she ever starts to slip from that best friend category into anything lower, I think I would have to let her here about it. Then again, she would probably already know.

    As for the categories, I of course imposed my own qualifications for them. For instance, the close friends that I made when I was in the Army could call on me at anytime and I would drop what I was doing, hop on a plane and give them anything I could to help them through a crisis (be that money, strength or even an organ) without hesitation, but I wouldn’t consider any of them my best friends.

    That is a pedistal that I reserve for people that have touched my soul in such a way that I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

    Other than my wife, the only other person that has made me feel this way, died. It couldn’t have crushed me more if a member of my family (which of course is in a tier all by itself surpassing all other categories) had passed away.

    But they were definately good starting points for the categories.

    Actually, now that I have had a couple of hours to think about it, I have come to the conclusion that I need to get out more! :)

    “I’m not fun at parties, either.”

    That was too funny, I nearly shot Mt. Dew out of my nose!

  8. I would agree with John’s assessment of friendships. As a sidenote, I met my writing mentor online. It was several years before I met him face-to-face. It’s not that he lives far away (I’m in Fresno, he’s in San Francisco), but I rarely see him more than once a year.

    I wrote half a book with a friend and writer in Mississippi whom I’ve never met in person.

  9. I think John’s basically right, because he’s got biological hardwiring on his side. At the same time, though, for at least some of us the connections online can be a bit different.

    True story: back in high school in the pre-Internet 80s, I was very active in several BBS systems. Well, a rough school schedule rolled around and I didn’t have time to go online for a longish while. What I hadn’t realized is that this was the first time I had ever vanished from sight.

    When I logged back on, I was shocked to find dozens of messages debating how to find out what had happened to me, discussions of how to find out my real name (we all used handles, no one knew), and that several people had gone back and reread everything I had ever wrote looking for clues. With that software, this was a serious time investment. Working theory was that it was known I was in high school, and that if I were dead it would be in the papers, so I must be missing or similarly in trouble, and how could they help me?

    To a teenaged geek with few close friends and limited social skills, you can imagine what effect this had on me. At the time, I didn’t know their names either — but by the end of the following year, I had met most of them. (And explaining to my parents why I was hanging out with pre-op transexuals, Goths, and a guy who had converted his entire apartment into a Habitrail.)

    More recently, a debating partner on a mailing list I’m on was diagnosed with cancer, and subsequently died. I would have put him firmly in the acquaintance category — didn’t even know what he looked like until I saw the memorial page. So why do I think of him every tme I open that mail folder? And where did that email come from that I wrote to him as soon as he announced his diagnosis?

    Point being, online contact is attenuated in relation to F2F, but it still involves human contact, and human contact always involves the heart — sometimes in stronger ways that you yourself realize.

  10. Well, I gotta tell ya, I was feeling some obligation to buy Old Man’s War, but now that I understand the rules of acquaintances vs. friends, the burden is lifted.

    (Just kidding, John – sounds like a good read & I’ve got a vacation coming up – it’ll be on the list)

    The point is this: we use prejudice in our lives as a shortcut, putting things into convenient groups in order to form quick opinions about them & save time (e.g., I don’t like sprouts, so I don’t have to try brussell sprouts just to be sure.)

    When it comes to the people in our lives, though, it’s worth the extra effort to “categorize” each one individually. I know it’s traditional to say it, but my wife isn’t my best friend; she’s my wife. That’s a different, unique relationship, containing many similarities to “best friend”-ship, but also some (rather obvious) differences. My relationships with my friends are similarly unique, and while I do have a “best” friend, I think that honorary title is mainly a carryover from childhood, when such distinctions were more useful.

  11. Brian Greenburg writes:

    “When it comes to the people in our lives, though, it’s worth the extra effort to ‘categorize’ each one individually.”

    This is of course true — every relationship is different. To put in Linnean terms, you could say that the classfications above are Genus, while each relationship is Species: All people who are “Close Friends” feature some aspects in common, but each is also its own thing.

  12. I don’t know why it’s so satisfying to see you break it down like this, except that the phenomenon of having friends you’ve met online is still (in cultural terms) new enough that it’s not yet fully in the public realm of, I dunno, commodification or something. Of widespread cultural overkill. It’s still interesting to see one’s experience described because your descriptions are realistic. Soon enough all these categories will get ossified into mass-media stereotypes and it’ll be hard to escape being self-conscious and cramming the reality into the simplistic category. But right now it’s still possible to let things just be what they are, and observe what they are, and enjoy that discovery.

  13. John,

    I very much appreciate you keeping our “best friend” status a secret. You mean a lot to me, too, and . . . huh?

    Oh crap.

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