Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 3.21

I recently heard someone on the radio (alas, I don’t remember who or where it was, sorry) lamenting what they saw as the loss of “real” friendship and interaction due to the ubiquity of internet availability and social networking websites. It was clear that the speaker felt that online relationships were necessarily empty of any real depth or importance, and saw them as something entirely distinct from friendships formed and based in physical interactions.

I found this puzzling, as I tend to see the internet as an extension of “real life” rather than an escape from it. Separating my friends into “irl” and “online” lists would be an impossible task, as probably 95% of my communication, with people I have known in person for many years as well as those I’ve never met in person, happens on the internet, and some of the people I’ve met online (and some I’ve never seen in the flesh) have become some of my closest friends.

Do you see a distinction between your online and meat space friends? Is there something inherent in internet communication that necessarily cheapens human interaction?

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32 Comments

  1. You cannot see a face, you cannot judge expression, you cannot tell if a person has a sense of humor, or is serious.
    Human interaction allows touching, seeing, and something that this medium cannot do.
    Besides — no war bride syndrome with the internet

  2. You know, people used to have “pen pals” before the internet. The internet is something of an extension of that idea, I think. While some people I communicate with aren’t really friends, we can and do learn from each other, even if our correspondences are as tiny as a twitter message or a blog comment.

  3. I definitely draw a distinction. Certainly more than I used to. Regardless of how we met, I make a division between those I’ve interacted with at least once in person and those I haven’t.

    Interacting online is incomplete and can therefore be deceptive. It’s better now than it used to be. Tools like Skype make it easier to interact at a distance. Still not the same thing as being there, though.

  4. Moot point for me at this time, as set A=set B. I have had penpals at times.
    Face-face is so much more intimate. I would rather (and do, to the puzzlement of others) walk for an hour to a business and pay a bill in person than drop it in the mail. I don’t bank online. I would respond to blogs in person if it was an option.

  5. Actually, I draw very little distinction. I’m just as keen to meet/hangout with people I know from the interwebs as I am people I know from physics class. It’s only not often as convenient because of distance or whatnot.

    I’ve made many friends(even real life ones) on forums such as this.

  6. I do see a separation between my solely online friends (people I’ve never met IRL) versus those I communicate with online but also know IRL but the boundary is fuzzy. There are definitely people I’ve never met face to face that I feel I know very well from years of talking online, better than some casual friends.

  7. I can hug my meat-bag friends, which is admittedly an impossibility with the online crew, so there is an obvious distinction there. Furthermore, my experience with facebook friends suggests to me that they are mostly a mutual acknowledgement of each others existence, and not much else. The distinction, in my books, is whether the person you are interacting with is someone who you would be completely comfortable sitting down for a beer with. Then again, my blog-o-sphere interaction is much closer to “me” than my meat-o-sphere interactions. Tossup, really. Whatever you are looking for in a relationship defines your friends.

  8. I find the opposite is true. Online I don’t have to see or put up with a lot of the things that would normally annoy the shit out of me. Also anything I don’t know about someone gets filled in with what I want to be true. This makes me get more attached to people online than I would in person.

  9. The distinction is spurious, IMHO. Describing a meeting or conversation as IRL (in real life) is misleading, as email, telephone, even old-fashioned post are every bit as real as a face-to-face conversation. That’s not to say these different ways of interacting are the same, as they obviously aren’t. But they’re equally real.

    One can have online friends that become face-to-face friends, and vice versa. It’s often a matter of geography or other circumstances. I don’t make a specific distinction, as the whole thing is stretched along a sliding scale.

  10. I know there’s a nascent distinction somewhere in my brain, but for the most part I see no distinction at all. I don’t see much of a different between Internet communication and telephone communication, and the two of those combined makes up a solid majority.

  11. I do distinguish between the two groups–online friends refers to those with whom I first interacted on line, but I now consider friends (more than the typical Facebook-type friends).

    I’ve met some great people online and have made some great friendships. And then there are what I consider to be online acquaintances–not quite friends. I don’t think human interactions have to be cheapened online. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, online communication is like a sewer: what you get out of it, depends on what you put into it.

  12. Though there is no physical contact via the Web, and as TerrySimpson above commented about the lack of facial expressions, tone, etc., I don’t see all that much between my physically present friends and my Web friends.

    Granted, I’d like to meet a lot of these people face to face and share dinner or a beer, but that may not be possible due to geography, available funds and vacation time restrictions (my employer’s vacation time system sucks…).

    I have a very mixed bag of friends on Facebook. Many are far away (Australia, the UK, for example) , but many are very nearby and accessible. I think Noadi hit it when she described the boundary as “fuzzy.” Steve also makes a valid point that it is easier to be deceptive online.

  13. I don’t make a distinction between friends I have online or friends I have “in the flesh” (I think Paul J is right – it’s all “real”). I DO make a distinction between friends I have known well for 20 years and friends I have known sporadically for 10 weeks. Some of my best friends, and I mean people for whom I would take a bullet given the opportunity, I mainly interact with online these days, as there are several thousand miles of ocean between us. I would not let someone with whom I have only had several months of good conversation with online come to my house and watch my kids while my wife and I went out for dinner – trust doesn’t work that way. But I also don’t treat every single person I interact with online as if they are planning to steal my identity. It’s exactly the same as making new firends in the flesh. Trust comes with time.

    And I am not sure I accept the notion that it is, prima fascia, easier to deceive online. If someone wants to deceive me, they will. True, it is harder for someone to pass as (for instance) someone 10 years younger and a different gender at the first meeting, but if you offer any level of trust at the outset, deception is always a possibility. It is only by increasing the amount of interaction we have that trust is built. Be smart about it, and there is no need to distinguish between friends of different origins.

  14. @CatFurniture: You just made my day. It’s not often someone cites Tom Lehrer!

    Maybe it’s just me, but I have met some very fun and interesting people online – and I include SkepChicks in that statement. Chances are, I will never meet most of them in person. But hey, how much does that really matter?

  15. I regularly interact with people in three categories: (1) family members (by blood relationship or by marriage). (2) clients, colleagues in my law firm, and other professionals in my field (estate planning and tax). (3) “friends.” As it turns out, and because I live more than 70 miles from where I do most of my work in my profession, the only “friends” I’ve had for the past 3 years, and who are not in category (2), are people with whom I regularly communicate in on-line forums for atheists, skeptics, and formerly-religious folks. So I don’t see any operational difference in the depth or the intensity of the conversations that my “friends” and I can have on-line, compared to what we might do if it were logistically practical for us to meet regularly in person.

  16. My close friendships started in meat space and have continued online. I haven’t yet made a deep friendship online, but I don’t say it’s impossible as I know of people who have. The Internet is great for maintaining friendships, though. If I had to pay 42¢ and wait 2 days for each message I send to friends to get there, I’d know a lot less about what was going on in my friends’ lives, and they would know less about mine. That’s true for deep thoughts as well as Facebook status updates.

  17. I do miss the hugs, nights out, and other up close activities I can’t have with people I only know online, but I don’t think those friendships are cheapened. The distance creates the problem, and the online communication helps bridge that distance. Microphones and cameras help a little more, adding voices and faces, but I still miss that physical interaction.

  18. I have a lot of categories of friends. Possibly one for almost each one. I have a different relationship with people I’ve met IRL than with people I only know through internet and snail mail. I have a different relationship with people that live 3000 miles away than I have with people living next door. But there are no one-to-one correspondences. It’s not automatically a closer relationship if someone lives close or automatically more superficial if I’ve only met someone online.

    Now excuse me while I go philosophize on the state of my social life.

  19. I met my husband online back in 1988 (yes, ninteen EIGHTY eight). He lived on Long Island, I lived in Alaska. We met on a computer network for C64 owners called Quantum link. I was living in Alaska because I’d met a couple on the same network in late 1987 who had an extra room, and I wasn’t really doing anything with my life at the time, so I decided to move to Alaska for a while. Back then, it wasn’t all about sex. :) They were born again Christians (and I became a born again Christian just before moving), and they helped me “grow in the faith” after a few false starts (I’m no longer a born again Christian, I attribute that to getting some education, but that’s a different story). Anyway, my husband and I got along well online. We talked in chat, we sent letters and cards, we talked on the phone (the phone bills were astronomical). Eventually my roommates were leaving and I needed a roommate, and I knew that he’d been thinking of moving away from Long Island (he hated the people, the setting, wanted nature), so I asked if he’d be interested in moving up. He thought about it, and decided he was. We knew people who had met in meatspace and it hadn’t worked out (they smelled wrong) so we decided if it didn’t work out, there was no reason we couldn’t just be friends. We had enough in common, and we liked eachother. Fortunately I fell in love with him the moment he stepped off the ferry. I think the culture shock made it take him a day or two more. We smelled right to each other, immediately. We’ve been together 20 years and almost four months.

    Yes, there’s a distinction between my online friends and my meatspace friends. Primarily it’s a distinction of distance for me. I would love it if my online friends were more local to me, because then I could be of ACTUAL help to them when they needed it. I’d LOVE to be able to bring something to eat to my friends who were feeling poorly, or to provide practical assistance when they need help moving. As it is, all I can do is be supporting and loving. Not a small thing, but…

  20. I met my husband online, but now we primarily communicate offline. I met my mother offline but now we primarily communicate online. The internet has allowed me to communicate with people who have various things in common with me… sometimes obscure or sensitive things where finding someone else in meat space would be difficult, and even though I’ll likely never meet them in person, they’re still very special to me. There are also people, like my six-month-old daughter, whom I never communicate with online and offline-only is working fine so far. ;-)

  21. Per the blog Mind Hacks, I have encountered some valuable research regarding the social aspects of net use and such valid studies are starting to accumulate despite much more jumping to conclusions about what is sloppily perceived as the negative aspects of net communication by both non pros and pros (some of the pros are laughably alarmist). The good research so far has not pointed to anything inherently negative about net communication (not surprising really).

    I find that I act the same on the net and in person. Sometimes I goof bigtime in selecting friends both in person and on the net, and sometimes I hit the jackpot.

    My closest friend at the moment is a guy in CA who I met on a Yahoo stock board about five years ago. Not only have I never met him, neither one of us knows what the other looks like. Our main mode of communication is IM chatting, with some emailing. When his wife and son visited Paris (about 2 hrs from where we live in France), we told him that if they had any problems to call us and we would rally to their aid in person. When my husband thought that perhaps he would go for a job interview in CA, my friend offered to put him up at his home. So even when you live far apart, in this small world of ours, net friends can offer in-person help also.

    Another close friend was also met on the Net, originally from OZ, but then decided to marry a guy in Scotland she met on the net. So she and I are lot closer physically than before and can rather easily meet up in person if wanted. In addition, since there now is only one hour in time difference, it is much more convenient to IM.

    On the other hand, my childhood friend who was my closest friend in my twenties, is no longer that to me. My memories are still very important and I am glad that she and I were so close when younger. At present, we do not communicate all that much because she dislikes net communication. She can’t warm up to IM chatting because she finds it unstructured and confusing! I love that aspect of it, it is so spontaneous and nutty–my CA friend and I have a ball with our spelling typos and have now created a cherished speak/jargon based on said typos that only we can understand.

  22. I agree with you. After over 15 years on the Internet in one fashion or another, I find that my online friends are the ones who endure. As I’ve traveled around, I’ve made new friends irl, but then I move and we lose contact unless there is an online component to our friendship.

    Right now my two “best” friends, with whom I share the most and who I enjoy talking to the most (and I do talk to both of them voice sometimes) are 20 somethings, a woman in SoCal and a man in Missouri. The woman, who I met on Newsvine, I have met in the flesh several times. I haven’t ever met the young man, who I met playing World of Warcraft, but I suspect some day I’ll get a guild get together going and my guildies from that area will come visit.

    Perhaps the ability to connect virtually is slower to develop in some people . . . or maybe folks who learn how to do it are just evolving faster. ;)

  23. I wouldn’t say it cheapens it, but it is different. Hell I notice that I’m different when I’m online.

    I don’t know that I would be able to qualify online interactions as equal to life in meatspace (how could I without hugs and kisses) but they have brought a new life to my friendships and interactions. It”s so much easier to keep up with people I don’t see much or are too far away and I’ve been able to explore and “meet” new people that share things many of my meat friends don’t.

    I’ve never really bought into the false dichotomy of online vs. “real” friendships. All of the concerns brought up about online interactions can be true IRL as well.

  24. It’s odd but my best friends now are friends that I met online that I now see in person also!

    I’m able to be more picky with my friends online. If I go in a skeptic chat, I can be more open and honest also. In real life (like a dinner tonight) I had be sort of “feel out” the new people. It’s not nice to say during dinner “hey I just gave a talk about Mexican UFOs”. I mean, as I suspected, one of the dinner guests is a BIG UFO alien abduction person. I did ask why she believed in all that stuff, but I didn’t argue with her as hey, it was a lovely dinner party and the hosts didn’t need me getting into a big fight.

    Seriously, the people Im most comfortable with in real life, have been people I’ve met online first

  25. I have a couple different circles that I hang out with, and internet communication has allowed me to hang out with all of them without them having to know about the others. The best part is, I can meet people who share similar interests from all over the world.

  26. Relationships aren’t defined by communication medium; but they’re probably affected by it.

    Internet communication is “low-bandwidth” compared to in-person communication. I can say more with body posture, facial expression, and minute interactions (not to mention a decent hug or affectionate kiss) than I’ll ever be able to say over the ‘net — even with good-quality video.

    That doesn’t make Internet communication worthless or damaging. It’s like using my iPhone’s EDGE connection to get my e-mail: it might not be as rich an experience as sitting at home — but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

    I do think it’s entirely possible to develop very close friendships without ever meeting someone. However, I also think there’s a level of intimacy that requires physical interaction, and I don’t just mean “intimacy” in the sexual way.

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