Digital versus real life friendships

Recently, I read an article about the opposite feelings of liberation and imprisonment that we feel from our online lives.  I have talked about the benefits of technology before, but the idea of imprisonment also strikes very close to home.  I often lament about all the time I spend online, when I could be doing more productive things.  The kids accuse me of having double standards when I am online and won’t let them watch TV.  Usually, those arguments come up when I am actually using the computer as a tool rather than as entertainment, such as balancing the checkbook, searching for a recipe to make dinner, or writing posts for this blog.  These are liberating aspects of the internet.

For me, the dark side comes after the kids are in bed and I decide to check Facebook.  I get sucked into the “internet tabloids” as my husband calls them.  This has become such a problem for me that I have created restrictions on our router to prevent me from clicking through after 8pm.

Illusory friendships

Another problem with Facebook is that it gives us the illusion of relationships.  I keep my Facebook friends list limited to people that I actually know or have spoken to in real life.  There are three friends of my 64 that I have not actually met in person.  Two are real life friends of my husband who moved to another state before I met him.  The friends did, not my husband.  The third is a woman whose blog I followed religiously many years ago and I took one of her classes.  We did speak on the phone together for some time, so I have had a real-life conversation with her.  That’s it.  The rest of my friends on Facebook are family, local friends, church members, and people I know from my community.

The interactions I have with people on Facebook are different from the interactions I have with those same people in real life.  In real life I can hug them (I love to hug my friends), offer them a cup of tea or a glass of water, chat with their kids.  On Facebook, it is more like I am at a big party and whatever I post is what I announce at the party.  Different friends get different levels of conversation and information when we can have an in person visit.  I can confide in my friends in real life in a way that I don’t feel comfortable doing on Facebook, even with my extremely private settings and limited audience.

Shortchanging emotional work

One way that we work out our troubles and process our grief is by sharing.  When we tell our sad story to a friend, it eases a little of the pain.  They will console us, hug us, tell us things will get better, to hang in there, that we are strong.  It makes it a little bit better.  Each time we do this, the pain lessens a little.  This is one reason it is good to have a large circle of friends.  We have more opportunities to have help processing our troubles.

Facebook changes that.  On Facebook, we only get to tell our story once.  Everyone hears it at the same time, offers online condolences, and tells us it will get better.  There are no hugs.  I’m sorry, but as lovely as the intent is behind a virtual hug, it does not provide the tactile human contact that we all crave.  We don’t get the catharsis of telling our story repeatedly until it is diluted enough that we can handle it alone.  If we post on Facebook about the same grief repeatedly, eventually our friends tire of hearing about it and tell us to get over it already.  We need a fresh set of ears for each telling of the story.

Facebook doesn’t just affect our troubles and grief.  It also dilutes our joys in the same way.  We want to shout our joys from the rooftops, to tell anyone who will listen how excited we are about this wonderful news.  When we tell people in person, they get excited with us, at least the first time or two.  Everyone hears it at the same time, gets excited, and then it becomes boring again when we share it on Facebook.  When I come across friends in real life who saw an exciting post I made, it is really deflates my enthusiasm when they say, “Yes, I saw that already,” instead of, “Tell me all about it!”  I want to share it anew.

Real life

This is why I feel that Facebook has hijacked friendship.  It gives the illusion of relationships while stripping them of substance.  Yes, I can learn the news of what is happening in my friends’ lives by reading their posts, but I don’t really get to share in their joy or grief.  There is no body language or vocal inflection or shared silliness.  I can’t give them a big compassionate hug, or dance in the kitchen with them.

Friendship is built on shared activities.  The simple act of being physically close and doing something together fosters a sense of emotional closeness.  Facebook is a great way to meet new people, and to make plans, but you don’t really get to truly know each other without getting together in real life.  In real life, you can get an uncensored version of them.  Their manners, their beliefs, their attitudes all can show differently online than in real life.

So use Facebook (or whatever social media you prefer) to make new acquaintances, but then get together in real life and make friends with them.  We need to preserve this skill from being lost in the digital age.

Your turn

What has your online experience been with friendships?  Are online friendships as fulfilling for you as in person friendships?

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