Virtually friends

Friend network

How many friends do you have?

And where is the line between traditional ‘friendship’ and the multiplicity of friends, followers and random acquaintances many of us have accumulated via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter? Indeed, does that line really still exist as the distinction increasingly blurs and our real and virtual worlds continue to collide and coalesce?

How many friends do I have?

According to the ‘contacts’ file on my mobile I have about 300 friends, although it’s probably stretching things to claim that my local Chinese and Indian takeaways are real ‘friends’. (Then again, they’re both on speed dial …) 200 is probably closer to the mark, of which I see maybe half on a regular/semi-regular basis. So that’s, say, 100 people who I’ll see anywhere between weekly and once a year.

562 people listen to my 140-character ramblings. Why?!?

But what about online ‘friends’? I’ve just done a quick audit of my three primary online universes – Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere – and the numbers make for interesting reading. Facebook: 151 friends. Twitter: 562 followers. Blogs: 199 followers. (Come on, who wants to be number 200?) That’s 912 people who have voluntarily chosen to interact with me online.

Okay, like a Venn diagram there is a degree of overlap between those three populations, but not as much as you might think. And not all those friends/followers are active. But it’s probably fair to say that if you apply the same criterion to online followers as real world friends that there are 400-500 people with whom I interact online at least once a year, and probably a quarter of these (so, 100-125) I will have some sort of direct contact with at least once a week, whether it is engaging in a Twitter conversation or commenting on a blog post or Facebook status. I never realised I was so popular!

Put another way, I am in regular contact with just as many friends online every week as I am face-to-face every year. It’s no wonder they call them social networks.

Are friends electronic?

With apologies to Gary Numan for the headline above, this does raise the question of whether online relationships can really count as friendships.

I don’t see why not. In the physical world, friends are people you share some common link with. Maybe you went to school or university together, or share a love of sports, or just happen to live next door to each other. Online relationships form in much the same way. Among the estimated 400-500 virtual friends I counted above are clusters I first ‘met’ on online football forums, other bloggers who write about their families, cycling fans I’ve encountered either on my blog or Twitter, and many other shared interests.

The only difference is that friendship is not constrained by physical contact. As a result, I have many more friends than I would otherwise have who live all over the world. In many cases, I know these ‘virtual’ friends just as well as my ‘real’ ones. We view each other’s photos on Facebook and Flickr. We have a laugh together on Twitter while watching the same TV programmes or sporting events. We share the minutiae of our own lives just as we used to do over the phone with our best mates. In these important respects, there is nothing virtual about the bonds of friendship which form.

And, of course, there is no unbreakable wall which exists between the real world and the online world. In a number of instances I have actually met up with friends I have made online, and found them to be pretty much the same in person. (It’s like online dating, but without the awkwardness of getting all dressed up and worrying about making a good first impression.)

I’ve even set up another blog – one focussed on cycling – with four others, all of whom I met either via blogging or Twitter. The five of us are scattered across three countries, and in terms of age we vary from A-level student to retiree. We set up the blog purely via online contact, and only after we had launched did three of us finally manage to meet up for real. Needless to say the conversation flowed almost as easily as the wine, and the friendship which exists between us is as solid as any ‘traditional’ one.

And that’s the thing. Whether it is a meeting of kindred spirits or merely people who share a love of the same hobby, it doesn’t really matter how friendships form – just as it’s possible to meet your life partner through friends, dating websites or because your eyes locked across a crowded room. Friends are friends, and you can never have enough of them.

Incidentally, this piece was inspired by a couple of posts by Vanessa-Jane Chapman, one of my more recent blogging friends. You can read The mind-blogging world of informal blogging networks and When the real world merges with the blogging world over on her blog. Go on, make yourself a new friend …