Friends: Virtual vs. “Real”

Published June 18, 2018 in Warp & Woof

Friends: Virtual vs. “Real”

Don’t Feel So Guilty about Social Media

William Sundwick
Since the recent revelation of theft of personal data from Facebook, we are especially sensitive to privacy concerns in our interconnected world. And, while we can easily see the psychology of social media addiction and associated behavioral disorders, defending the omnipresent nature of our digital lives is harder. But, the truth is social media facilitate communication among people who may not otherwise be connected.
We know that Facebook’s all-powerful secret algorithm tracks all our behavior on the platform, and other platforms if we let it, sorting it into data packets that can be “weaponized” by advertisers and others. But, one consistent feature of Facebook, since its origin (2004), has been that you must enter a fair amount of personal information to establish an account. Other social media platforms have allowed easier anonymity, especially in the earlier generation of chat rooms and bulletin boards. In those late-20th century and early -21stcentury environments, you really didn’t know if the person you were talking with was anybody in real life (IRL). Today, Facebook is tougher than Twitter in this regard. Bots can easily prowl the Twitter platform — I think bots may be my principal followers there. Twitter is probably as good as Facebook for news feeds, but its 280-character limit for tweets does constrain freedom of expression some – especially for writers. We resort to the tweetstormfor a solution.
Although Facebook tries to stifle “catfish” (assumed false identities, usually for illicit romantic escapades), it can do nothing to prevent users from adopting a social media “avatar” (persona) which reveals only what the user wants to reveal about themselves to their friends. But, isn’t that what we all do with our friends and acquaintances IRL, anyway?
So, how do we select friends in the virtual world? Different approaches seem to suit different social media users. Some consider their online friends to be the same folks they know IRL. The social media platform is simply another way of communicating with them – when voice and in-person meetings are not possible. This essentially relegates the social media platform to nothing more than email. I have heard of people who will “unfriend” any Facebook friend whom they haven’t spoken with IRL in more than a year. On the other hand, many social media users find the digital world to be an entirely different realm than the IRL world. Their Facebook friends may not have any overlap with their “real world” friends. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. Of course, caution is required in accepting Facebook friend requests, but we’re usually willing to do some diligence for unsolicited requests.

Online friendships are important to some people. They may be socially isolated in their real-world environment, through no fault of their own. Perhaps they live in a very hostile social milieu, and don’t have the means to move away. Perhaps there are subjects which cannot be broached IRL within their circle; but online, anything goes. Geography can play a role as well. It may be too difficult to travel to friends. Perhaps you live in a wasteland, where there just aren’t many people – at least not many who share common interests. Disabilities can inhibit one’s ability to get out or navigate difficult terrain. This may include poverty or psychological deficit in communication skills. Online platforms can mitigate many of these problems, hence become one’s primary “neighborhood” for social interaction.
But, can you rely on virtual friends the same way you can on a “real” friend? It depends on what kind of success you feel you’ve had with those IRL friends. With most of us, there is a sliding scale of how “good a friend” someone is – and, it’s usually unknown where they fall on that scale until they’re tested. That test, whatever it is, can also be applied to virtual friends. Do they give you emotional support? Will they come to your aid when you need it? Are they loyal? None of these things requires physical presence – except maybe hugs (or physical intimacy). Facebook, at least, has expanded its collection of emojis to express “virtual hugs and kisses.” And, as a writer, I can vouch for the power of written language, when applied skillfully, to provide succor – as easy online as on paper.
Of course, the classic excuse for a friendship, even more than “loyalty,” is mutual interest. The online world is fine for sharing common interests. But if the interests involve physical manipulation of objects in the real world (like crafts), eventually people with the same interest will probably want to meet-up. They also want to meet-up just to experience dimensions of intimacy precluded from an online conversation – including innocent stuff, like body language, as well as romantic encounters.
If your philosophy of virtual friendships leans more toward viewing the online world as an extension of IRL social networks, then meet-ups are already part of the rules. Your virtual friends are already granted the same privileges and access as the IRL friends – they’re the same people. If you prefer to maintain strict separation of the virtual from the real world, you’re probably seeing the virtual milieu as a refuge from the IRL world. The corollary here is that your virtual friends have more privileges and access to you than your real-world friends – you may be more reticent to express feelings with the IRL friends. Meet-ups may be forbidden or purely accidental.
Meet-ups may not be all that you had hoped, in the case of trying to make plans online for an encounter. Perhaps physical meet-ups work better in the first case, where they’re conditions of the friendship from the outset, or accidental encounters for the latter case. I have not had such an experience with a digital-only friend, although I have many virtual friends, some in my local geographic area (I live in a major metro area, common interests might very well accidentally bring us together). But, the prospect does bring an air of excitement to my virtual life.
Technology helps provide solutions to the boundary problem with virtual friends. Both Facebook and Twitter allow use of photographs and videos. (And Instagram is built entirely around shared photos). Since most of us carry our phones/cameras in our pockets, visual and audio sharing is frequently part of the social media experience. Some research suggests that comparative behavior of your personal sense of self with what you see of your friends online may contribute to depression, but the other side of the coin is that you are communicating much better using a picture of yourself — and voice if its a video — than by using written words alone. The problem is that you may impose a level of intimacy on somebody who’s not willing to accept it! One should avoid online bullying, in any form, even if it amounts to nothing more than bragging about, or advertising, your life. 
I may experiment with more audio-visual communication in my Facebook net, but I will be sure to ask permission first.
So, if you want to ownyour online experience with virtual friends, and this should be everybody’s goal, you should feel that meet-ups are optional, not required. You always have the agency to decide what you want to share with your virtual friends. Your avatar is under your control. But, you must maintain respect for your friends’ feelings – don’t force anything on them that they may not want – just as in real life.
Remember to give lots of positive reinforcement to your online friends – we all crave “narcissistic supply.” On Facebook, those reaction emojis go a long way, but comments go even further. Despite his secret algorithm, Mark Zuckerberg’s famous “manifesto” of 2017 seems to encourage this. Avoid trolls, unfriend and block them as necessary – and stay away from Facebook Discussion Groups that don’t adequately police trolling. Nobody has time for the negative stuff. And, walking away is invisible online.

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