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Posted by on Jan 4, 2009 in Society | 0 comments

In Defense of Friendships Formed With People We Meet Online

Friday in The Guardian Anna Pickard authored a stirring defense of making friends online:

The friends I’ve made online – from blogging in particular, be they other bloggers or commenters on this or my own site – are the best friends I now have. And yet, when I say this to people, many times they’ll look at me like I’m a social failure; and when surveys like this are reported, it’s always with a slight air of being the “It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy world!” item last thing on the news. Some portions of my family still refer to my partner of six years as my “Internet Boyfriend”.

Call me naive, but far from being the bottomless repository of oddballs and potential serial killers, the internet is full of lively minded, like-minded engaging people – for the first time in history we’re lucky enough to choose friends not by location or luck, but pinpoint perfect friends by rounding up people with amazingly similar interests, matching politics, senses of humour, passionate feelings about the most infinitesimally tiny hobby communities. The friends I have now might be spread wide, geographically, but I’m closer to them than anyone I went to school with, by about a million miles. […]

Whenever this crops up in surveys and conversation, though it’s treated it’s treated with an air of disdain. It’s the sense of shock that surprises me, as if people on the internet were not “real” at all. Certainly, people play a character online quite often – they’ll be a more confident, more erudite, or, depending on the site, more argumentative version of their real selves – but what’s the alternative? What’s the thing that’s so much better than making friends in a virtual world? Meeting people at work? Yes perhaps, but for many, a professional distance between their work selves and their social selves is necessary, and they just don’t want to spend that much time with people they work with – especially with their guard down. Is it better to meet friends in pubs? While drunk? Are they really much more themselves in that state than in the words through which they present themselves online?

My transition from NYC to rural Georgia was made possible — bearable! — by the fact of the Internet. Geography has prevented me from porting many virtual friends over to “real, physically pokable ones”  but that has hardly lessened the impact of my online friends on the quality of my daily life.

Via Martin Stabe and Jeff Jarvis — who recommends we follow-up by reading Leisa Reichelt’s “seminal post” on ambient intimacy and also Jeff’s Guardian piece on how constant connection will change the nature of friendship. He goes on to quote from the last chapter of his book, What Would Google Do?, on the larger impact of Google and the internet:

Thanks to our connection machine, they will stay linked, likely for the rest of their lives. With their blogs, MySpace pages, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, Seesmic conversations, Twitter feeds, and all the means for sharing their lives yet to be invented, they will leave lifelong Google tracks that will make it easier to find them. Alloy, a marketing firm, reported in 2007 that 96 percent of teens and tweens used social networks—they are essentially universal—and so even if one tie is severed, young people will still be linked to friends of friends via Facebook, never more than a degree or two apart.

I believe this lasting connectedness can improve the nature of friendship and how we treat each other. It will no longer be easy to escape our pasts, to act like cads and run away. We will behave with this knowledge in the present. More threads will tie more of us together longer than in any time since the bygone days when we lived all our lives in small towns.

Hey Jeff, want to be my Facebook friend?

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