The Ultimate Guide to Online Friendship

Today I want to talk to you about online friends. When you think about it, this is quite extraordinary.

You interact, and possibly share your photo with people who you have never met and may never meet.

We have ventured into a world that we have no rules for. What are the boundaries for online friendships? Are there protocols to follow? And the most basic question, what’s the bare minimum of time you need to invest in these friendships?

To answer these burning questions, we first need to define the online friendship.

I think we can all agree that Facebook is to blame for all this confusion. I remember watching “NCIS: Los Angeles” when Eric Beale, one of the computer geeks, was asked, “Does Karen have a last name?” He replied, “Can’t remember.”

“You can’t remember?”

“No. But God bless her, she has put me over the top. I now have over 1000 Facebook friends.”

Warning! If you have 1000 Facebook friends and you don’t know their names, please seek treatment immediately.

When you signed up for Facebook, you probably started with actual friends, old schoolmates or good acquaintances. If you wanted to keep your life private you chose the appropriate settings. Most of the people on my Facebook I would consider lunch-worthy, meaning that if I saw them in person, I’d ask them to lunch. I may even send them a Christmas card.

Facebook friends work pretty much like everyday offline friends. You can unfriend someone which is similar to having the “I’m never going to talk to you ever again,” fight. Or, you can hide someone which is the nice way of unfriending. Then your friend doesn’t know you’ve snubbed her. You can both save face, and feel free to say hi in the grocery store and maybe chat about how you both hate creamed corn.

I also found myself adding friends on Facebook that I didn’t know. This was a big step for me because I’m a private person. But I really needed Farmville neighbors and friends of my friends were playing so the common friend introduced us. I made the sacrifice. This was going to be a use and be used friendship. No need to invest any time in this friendship. The only thing I was sacrificing was my privacy. My desire to make a bigger farm won out over remaining private.

I’ve since quit playing Farmville and have only unfriended one person from my gang of five. I can’t seem to sever the ties with the others. We built up a camaraderie playing Farmville, and I feel it’s unkind to unfriend them. Mute yes, unfriend, no.

For the past year, I’ve been playing Forge of Empires where interaction between players is required. In all my years of gaming, I’ve never played this type of game. Fortunately, players can remain anonymous as long as they choose a good avatar name like Pith Lord Sexypants or Lord Skunklicker and talk only about the game. I did have one person open up and tell me where she lives and that she was a grandmother, which surprised me. That was too much information in this dangerous world of stalkers and perverts. But she seemed legit. I ended up helping her find her online photographs that she thought she lost when she bought a new phone. And I friended her in the game.

What about sharing your personal life?

Other players are more open about their personal lives. Some will share where they’re going on vacation or that they have to take care of their 80 year dad. Usually they offer this information because they will be offline and not able to play which most guilds require or you’ll be booted. Life can be cruel in the gaming world. It’s a good thing the gaming world rules don’t apply to spouses.

I can safely say that all of these online friends will only remain fellow gamers judging by their lack of spelling. Call me old school, but just because this is a game, doesn’t mean you have to show your stupidity and laziness. Some players write like they’re texting. I was a latecomer to texting and still don’t use the shortcuts, probably because I don’t know text speak. If I have trouble understanding what you are saying, then you haven’t held up your half of the line of communication bargain. Delete with no regrets.

Another set of online friends may include your co-workers. When I got married almost five years ago, my commute to work would have almost doubled because I had to move. My company said I could work from home but I had to work the late shift until 8 pm. Hello home office, goodbye corporate cubicle. I did cartwheels and thanked my supervisor as I headed out the door, computer and monitor in tow.

Since that time many people have come and gone in my department, and there are only two left who I’ve talked to face to face. Everyone else is a name with an email and sometimes a fuzzy, poorly lit photo uploaded in Skype that won’t help you identify this person if you had to pick her out of a lineup. This is my work world. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you as more and more of us work from home.

After reading emails and hearing a voice over the phone, we create a person in our mind. If you’re a naturally noisy person, you’ll strike up an IM (instant message) with someone you want to get to know. You may get the chance to talk to your fellow employees directly or in a meeting. It is through these interactions that you base your opinion of whether or not you like the person and how much you want to share your personal life. Not really much to go on, is it?

If I determine the person works hard, and can join sentences with a period instead of a comma, I’ll try to develop that online friendship. I find the last caveat weeds out many and saves me a lot of time. Each of us has to figure out our own criteria.

When do you know if your online co-worker can turn into an online friend? The key question to ask is would you invite her to your Facebook world? If not, then chances are you’ll remain online co-workers. But that’s okay. You can still have lunch like co-workers do.

Who’s up for lunch?

Speaking of lunch, this is a perfect test to see if you want to pursue a friendship, so if you have an opportunity to break bread, take it. You can tell a lot about a person by going to lunch. If they are courteous to the wait staff, then it’s safe to assume that they’re considerate to others. Do they eat with their mouth closed, or do they make annoying smacking sounds that deserve a dagger-filled glare and a smack upside the head? If it’s the former, then they are probably conscientious and follow good habits. Finally, do they leave a 15 or 20% tip? If not, you know the person is cheap, cheap, cheap, a gigantic red flag in my book. Failure to pass these tests will probably move them to the “come up with good excuse to not meet again” group.

Finally, I have a group that fits THE definition of online friends. These are people I’ve never met in person, but would love to. I interact with them on a regular basis. They are the wonderful group of writers at Two Drops of Ink. We know each other by our writing and our comments. I’ve come to know the editors and feel comfortable sending them an email anytime I have a question. They have welcomed me into their world, and I feel fortunate to call them friends.

If you blog or interact in small groups online you may find yourself developing the same kinds of friendships. These are great to have, but don’t let them take the place of your real friends.

Many years ago I decided I wanted to try camping, but I wanted to go alone. It was at a time in my life when I was unhappy and trying to figure out what would make me happy. I left my husband and kids for a few days, borrowed some camping supplies and headed to a nearby campground. I spent many hours reading, walking and journaling. At night I made a campfire and pondered my life while staring into the flames.

It only took me a few days to realize that I had become touch deprived. I realized that I needed human interaction: hugs from my children, a pat on the back from my friend or holding hands with a loved one.

Having online friends is entertaining and fun, but they can’t take the place of real human interaction. As with all things in my life, moderation is key. I don’t plan on going to a crowded event where they have to check my purse before I get through the door nor do I want to be alone for any length of time, unless it’s in my house with my computer and cat by my side helping me put words down on paper. I do have my exceptions. It’s okay to have your online friends, but you need to go out to lunch now and then.

2 Comments

  1. Hmmm… Truth is I use Facebook differently to most. I am connected to people I have never met, and may never meet. Then my reason for being on Facebook is for professional networking, not for friends and family. Sure I am connected to family, my nephew keeps sending me things about his family, but he also knows the reason I am there is for business connections. I have somewhere near 1,000 Facebook connections, I know something about most, even though we have not met.

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