We are a species that craves community and friends and Facebook has allowed us to revolutionize where we find these things and how we satisfy that craving. Although there are multiple platforms that allow friendships to develop, Facebook is the one that is most commonly used and the one that I am most familiar with. Friendships forged online can become deep and abiding and in some cases may be the closest relationships some people will ever have.
According to Brandwatch’s June 2019 article “126 Amazing Social Media Statistics and Facts,” Facebook has 2,375 billion users, with 6 new profiles being added EVERY SECOND. They also state that 79% of all online US adults use Facebook. Clearly Facebook is filling a need that we collectively have.
There are five distinct ways in which friendships between online friends are every bit as valuable as “in real life” friendships, even if the form that they take does not look like your traditional idea of how these relationships should be created and function.
1. Friends with Geographical Distance Can Lead To Vulnerability
There is something freeing about revealing yourself to someone that you don’t expect will ever show up in your real life or interact with your family and in-person friends. Sharing a fear that you have about a medical condition or a conflict you’re having with your mother-in-law can feel safer when you know that the person receiving the information doesn’t know, and will likely never know, the parties involved.
That sense of freedom allows the other person to also reveal things that make them vulnerable and there builds a bond between you when you know that the person holds your confidence just as you do theirs. Is there a risk in revealing yourself to a “stranger?” I’m not convinced that the risk is any greater than being open and honest with someone you know in real life. People are people and you always have to measure and get a sense of someone else before you share private information.
2. You Can More Easily Connect With People Who Share Your Interests
Online communities allow you to quickly and easily find people who share your interests, your political opinions, or a rare medical diagnosis. This is often a laborious task in real life, with a whole lot of small talk before you ever discover if you even have anything in common on which to build a friendship!
These friends can be found in special interest groups, but they also can be found in general interest communities. For instance, I belong to a group of bloggers, almost all women, who in general share a love of writing and blogging. But within that group, through posts, comments and replies, I have discovered women who are also totally into their grandkids, love reading, have a passion for direct sales, and think crafting is life. I challenge you to find an interest that you have that does not have a corresponding Facebook group – and if one doesn’t exist, creating a group is fast and easy. In addition to special interest groups you will also probably find a Facebook group for your local community, for speakers and authors that you follow, and even products that you love!
3. We Multi-Task – Connect with Friends While Working On Your Computer
We spend more time on our computers today than we do out at real life events so we invest a lot of time in these friendships. Never before have we been able to so easily merge our social life and our work life. This may not be a great boon to productivity but it is an excellent way to keep up with those outside our day-to-day life.
While some employers implement strong policies against any work time being spent on personal internet business, many have found that this does not work out well for them when they expect an employee to answer a work email at 8pm from their couch while they’re watching Games of Thrones!
Some of us may even find friendships without a strong online component falling by the wayside simply due to lack of availability for that “hangin’ out together” feeling that is brought by an all-day ongoing joke, a meme war that hits sporadically throughout the work day, or the unexpected deep dive when one of you needs to talk something out.
4. Online Friendships Hit Those Nooks & Crannies
Online friendships can fit into all the nooks & crannies of the time we have available and they don’t require the scheduling of a specific time investment. How many times have you wanted to meet up with someone for lunch and weeks go by with scheduling conflicts and rescheduling once a date has been finally decided on. (What are we all so busy with? Topic for another day!)
Face-to-face meetups are absolutely important, but that often doesn’t seem to affect their frequency. Of course we would love to have a couple hours to sit down with a dear friend in the middle of the day for a nice long chat over a cheeseburger, or meet up at a great new spot for drinks, like we are characters from Sex & the City! However, for many reasons, that’s not what we’re prioritizing at the moment. We’re much more likely to fit in a conversation about a recent breakup over text while waiting for our son’s soccer practice to be over than we are to find a whole evening that’s free, ready and waiting to be filled with friendship and laughter.
5. Meetups Level Up
Meeting up with an online friend can feel incredibly natural and bring that friendship to an entirely different level. The awkwardness that you would think would exist when two “strangers” get together for the first time doesn’t seem to exist when you have spent hours chatting and getting to know each other. You have seen each other’s beach photos, heard each other’s stories about 3 am vomit fests of a 2 year old (puppy or child – doesn’t matter!), and grieved for each other’s losses. Sometimes we’ve even video-chatted or seen each other hanging out on a Zoom somewhere. (Private Message: Hey, I see you up there on the Zoom Call – I just got here – what did I miss?)
I have met up with 23 people this year alone who I had previously only known through Direct Sales groups or Blogging Communities and I’m due to meet a whole lot more in a couple weeks at my Norwex conference. We’ve Marco Polo’d so much that I have no concern about awkward silences, only that there’s a limited time to hang out!
Do you know what Dunbar’s number is? I didn’t either until a couple years ago. A British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with this number, and his theory, in the 1990’s.
According to Wikipedia, Dunbar’s theory “proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.” This number, 150, is a “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.” As with any theory, there are detractors and people who say the number is more like 100 or more like 250, but the overall idea is that we have a limited amount of capacity for close relationships.
If Dunbar’s number is correct, and our maximum for stable relationships is 150, then our online friends are squeezing out the potential to make more meaningful relationships in person. However, many of us would not replace online friends with in-person friends but would instead retreat a little more and become a little more lonely.
Surely there are negative aspects to online friendship?
In an article published on Regain.us “Are Friends Online As Legitimate As Real-Life Friends?” it is pointed out that online friendships can be easily abandoned and there often is not the opportunity to come back from conflict. This, in my experience, is very true. Being ghosted by a friend in your community can still leave you with the potential crossing of paths in which to explore what happened; being ghosted by someone in your online community often leaves you with no opportunity to discover what led to your banishment. This can leave you either grieving or developing a nice thick emotional callous. Neither is the ideal end to a friendship.
I can’t imagine life without the friendships I’ve either created from scratch online or the ones that went from barely there to deep and abiding through what feels like unlimited time to have great conversation over the years. At this point in time, I have friendships that feel so deep and long-lasting that I forget that I’ve never met that person in real life and often have to stop and think.
I would love to hear in the Comments how you feel about this topic – share an anecdote of a deep and abiding friendship of yours that developed primarily online!