I am not somebody who believes that real life (RL) friendships always trump online friendships. I have seen some amazing things happen from online connections - the formation of Libraries Interact comes to mind, the empathy I found amongst people active in LiveJournal, the camaraderie I feel with a lot of bloggers. I have seen amazing creative and logistical achievements in various World of Warcraft guilds (*waves to the Librarian guild on Aerie Peak*).
On the other hand, I know that online friendships are not the same as RL friendships. Online only friends will never be able to help you move or mind your cat. If something really bad happens, like a car accident or a health problem, your online only friends won’t be able to pick you up from the hospital.
There is also a fragility about online only friendships. They can end unexpectedly, and when they end, it is often permanent, with no hope of reconciliation. The problem is that an online only relationship is a filtered relationship. We only connect with a certain part of the other person. There could be other problems in that person’s life which we have no knowledge of, until it’s too late. And if there’s a problem in that one space where we interact, then we lack that whole person view which provides the extra motivation and the means for fixing things.
There is a tendency to think it’s easier to just drop an online only friend than a RL friend. The cynical view is that this is because the chances of stumbling across that person again are so minute, that seems easier to replace rather than repair that relationship. This is becoming less true than it used to be. Over the last decade I’ve noticed a convergence between RL and online friends.
Last year I wrote about Twitter and Facebook in terms of their impact on “old fashioned” blogging. Now I’ll write something about the impact which they are having on communication more generally.
I confess that by most people’s definitions, I’m a terrible Facebook friend. I hardly ever login - and when I do login in, I’m so behind with everybody’s news that I hardly leave comments. I never upload photos, because frankly I don’t trust Facebook. I’d rather share my photos on a platform I have more control over.
I prefer to view myself as a minimalist Facebook user. I use Facebook as a dynamic and extended address book to preserve the means for contacting people (and catching up on their news) when I feel like making that contact. One problem is that I don’t feel like making that contact as often as Facebook wants me to - unless something from outside Facebook inspires me to do so.
Another problem is that other people have very different views and may interpret my relative lack of interest in their Facebook/Twitter as a lack of interest in them.
It’s a weird situation. Now we have the technology to stay connected with so many more people, so much more efficiently. In terms of potential interactions per minute of effort, Facebook and Twitter blow older technologies - email, phone calls, letters - out of the water.
But are these good interactions, the sort that really nurture a friendship? That might depend on the type of friendship. A friendship that’s mainly based in RL would not suffer from Facebook neglect.
Now that the technological constraints have been removed, is there another limit on the number of friendships we can maintain?
I wonder if the human psyche is limited in the number of specific people which it can care about at any one time?
I could imagine that different people could have different limits, but surely even the most extroverted have an upper limit - at which point new friends just blur into the crowd of overwhelmity or they remain distinct (at the expense of somebody else, who gets blurred).
Maybe in this way, I’m a bit of a luddite and one day I’ll change my mind and pay my dues to Facebook. But for now, I say that it is just one of many tools for maintaining a friendship, and must not be mistaken for the friendship itself.