Who needs real friends when you have online ones?

Real friends. Online friends. Is there any distinction any more?

Last weekend I travelled to Cambridge to meet up with about 20 fellow parent bloggers, only a few of whom I had previously met but I would consider several to be friends. It made me ponder how the nature of friendship has changed in the internet age.

The changing nature of friendship

In their 1979 single, Tubeway Army asked Are Friends Electric? In our 21st century online world, the question is more ‘are friends electronic?’

The nature of friendship is changing. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, friends were people you went to school with or lived in the same neighbourhood as. If you wanted to speak to them, you picked up the phone – you only had one in the house and it was fixed to the wall – and had a one-to-one conversation with them. Or if you wanted to call someone in another country, an international operator would manually connect you, a process that could take minutes.

Friends were people we ‘knew’. We might not see or speak to them often but we had tangible, face-to-face relationships with them.

It’s a far cry from today’s world. Yes, we still have ‘real’ friends. But we mostly communicate with them on the move via text messages and social media. And we instantly make video calls with people on the other side of the world via Skype.

We’re in constant touch with our friends via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. We know where they are. We know what they’re doing. We can see their photos and apps such as Periscope allow us to vicariously share their experiences via live streaming video.

Friendships are no longer solely about face-to-face contact or one-to-one telephone conversations. They now have the capacity to be virtual and many-to-many, 24/7.

Real, electronic and somewhere in between

Social media has also given us access to (literally) a world of new friends. You can follow your favourite celebrities on Twitter. You can share in a live event with fans across the globe from the comfort of your living room. You can listen to podcasts or watch YouTube videos about any subject under the sun.

Social media is mainstream. 82 million people follow the 140-character musings of Katy Perry on Twitter. My boys follow Minecraft vlogger Stampy Cat, whose YouTube channel has seven million subscribers. The most recent series of The X Factor had a similar number of viewers.

You don’t even have to be famous to have mind-boggling numbers. Sarah Turner, who writes the The Unmumsy Mum, secured a book deal off the back of her hugely popular blog and has a Facebook page with over 350,000 followers. (Sarah talks about her blog and forthcoming book in my latest podcast.)

Even I have nearly 8,000 followers across social media. Some of these are ‘traditional’ friends who I know in ‘real life’: university mates, local parents, work colleagues. A large number are people I will never meet face-to-face. Maybe our paths crossed through being fans of the same sports team or because we blog about similar topics but that’s as far as the relationship goes. And somewhere in between are friends who have started out as online acquaintances and progressed into real world friendships.

Three examples.

I’ve known J and S for 12 years, when we all posted on football forums. I met J for the first time about six years later when he was temporarily living close to where I work. We debate The Apprentice together when it’s on TV. And we’ll meet up on those rare occasions when I am able to get to an Arsenal game. I first met S face-to-face only last month, even though we chat about football and TV – we both love our superhero shows – on Twitter a couple of times a week. I consider both J and S to be good friends. They are good friends.

One of my other writing ventures is a cycling blog I set up sight unseen with three fellow fans. Four years on, the team has expanded to seven across three countries and I’ve still only met two face-to-face and only one member of the team has met each of the others. We write, we do a podcast together and chat constantly on Twitter. The fact we haven’t all met in person doesn’t lessen our friendship.

Finally there are my parent blogging pals, such as the ones I met up with last weekend. I turned up at BritMums Live last June having never previously met anyone in person. I’m strongly introverted and socially awkward, so I should have been terrified of being at an event with 700 strangers. And yet they weren’t all strangers. I had developed relationships online with several other bloggers and so, when I arrived – with every instinct in my body telling me to run away and go home – I soon found myself chatting away. Seven months later, there are a few who I would consider good friends despite having met them only a handful of times. I chat with people on Twitter. I comment on their blogs. I know about their latest issues with their kids. I’ve even featured 25 (and counting) on my parenting podcast.

I’m still no veteran when it comes to blogging events but whenever I show up to one I’m relaxed because I know I’m among friends. The kind of friends you share parenting woes with. And pitchers of cocktails because, you know, we’re parents and we don’t get out much …

Are these friends of any lesser status because of how we were first brought together, or because we have physically met only a few times (or even not at all)?

No. As with any friendship, we became friends because we had something in common and discovered we had similar outlooks on life. In some cases we chat frequently, in others less so. But these are all people with whom we share some aspect of our lives that goes beyond being mere acquaintances. In many cases I know a lot more about what’s happening in these people’s lives than I do about my real world friends.

Not all the 8,000 people who follow me on social media are ‘friends’, not by a long chalk. But a significant number are, and whether these friendships are real, electronic or somewhere in between is neither here nor there.

Oh, and just because, here’s Gary Numan and Tubeway Army …


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