Are Friends Online As Legitimate As Real-Life Friends?
Updated December 03, 2019
Reviewer Robin Brock
The Internet has been a part of mainstream culture for well over two decades now. It's always in your pocket; you're always on some form of social media, and yet there is still a stigma towards online friends.
Gone are the days of anonymous chat rooms and wondering whether the person behind the computer was even real. Now, you can video chat with your friend with ease, talk to them wherever you are and have a digital bond that lasts. However, if the friend lives in a place where traveling to just isn't possible, you may wonder if that friend is as legitimate as a friend who lives nearby, who you meet in person on a regular basis.
The answer is, as you probably expect, yes. Nowhere in the definition of the word 'friend' does it say that the friend must be offline only. You can share a bond with someone from behind another screen, and sometimes the bond goes deeper than it does for your IRL friends. That's because the Internet allows us to find people who share the same interests and beliefs as everyone else. You may have good real-life friends, but there are probably some things you just can't tell them. Be it an embarrassing confession, or a secret they'll tell everyone.
With that said, there are pros and cons to having an online friend. Here are some pros.
Pros of Having an Online Friend
You can meet friends on forums dedicated to an interest. Be it a political group, a blog dedicated to a certain fandom, and so on. Having a mutual interest is a great icebreaker. You don't have to have everything in common with a friend; sometimes, differences can spice up a friendship, but having shared interests is one way to spark a conversation.
You don't have to go to the movies, go eat out or go shopping with an online friend. You can just relax at home and talk to them while you're about to go to bed, while you're working, and so on. That isn't to say you must spend money to hang out with a real-life friend, but it does help with the bills.
Easy to Break the Ice
Perhaps the best thing about online communication is how easy it is to strike up a conversation. If you're introverted, shy, or just don't like talking to strangers, it's hard to make that first move. On the Internet, it's easier for most to make that first comment or send that first message. You can take time to write out exactly what you want to say. This isn't to say that there aren't some fears of talking to a stranger online, but it's just much easier.
You Can Get to Know Them Faster
Most people online are more comfortable with talking about themselves. They'll talk about their flaws, their mental illnesses, what they fear, and so on. In real life, it's hard to talk about some things without feeling like you're going to be laughed at. But due to the easy way of communicating, you can learn more about someone much faster than you can in real life.
You Can Make Friends All Around the Globe
To some, this is a disadvantage. If you live in America and another person lives in the UK, you aren't going to walk to their house and hang out. However, making friends with someone who is different than you can be a learning experience. You can learn about their culture, and they can learn from you. Best of all, if you do get a chance to visit where they live, you may have a place to stay and someone to show you around. They might even be able to chip in for a plane ticket. For the traveler, having friends across the globe can be a good thing.
Evolving Ways of Communicating
It doesn't have to be text-based. You can have video chats through your computer or phone. You two can walk around the town, talking to each other. It isn't a perfect replication of actually being there, but the ways you can interact with your friend brings it closer to being on the same level as a real-life friend. And as technology evolves, it'll get even closer.
Cons of Having an Online Friend
With that said, online friends have their disadvantages as well.
Hanging Out is Hard
Even if your online friend lives just a few hours from you, you're probably not going to visit them every weekend or anything. You two have lives and arranging a meeting with your online friend can be difficult, and costly if they live far. There is a plus to that, as mentioned above, but if you need your social fix, having online-only friends may not work.
While there are always video chats, they can't work all the time. Your friend may even live in a place where it's just not feasible. So, you may end up texting each other.
The problem with text is that there isn't enough communication. Body language and tone of voice are absent. You can use emojis, but they're not always helpful. Taking offensive to a benign message is common. It's also common to not get the hint that someone doesn't want to talk to you. Be patient and remember that miscommunications will happen. You probably won't need to hire a relationship counselor to fix your online friendship, but you never know.
Harder to Make Up
If you're going to be friends with someone for a long time, you're going to get into fights. Be it a disagreement or a misunderstanding (which can be caused by the miscommunication above problem.) With IRL friends, you may get mad at each other for a while but then bury the hatchet. Especially if the two of you have mutual friends. Sometimes, making up is the best option to keep the friend circle going, and it's a good thing. You're going to get into fights.
With an online friend, however, it's easy for them to get mad, hit the block button, and then find another online friend, forgetting about you in the process. When you're blocked, it gets difficult to try to reach them. It's also socially unacceptable to make another account and try talking to them. The online friend may even forget they blocked you.
When communicating with an online friend, keep your cool if there is an argument. Don't reach for the block button. Take some time alone and talk again with a cool head. If you do hit the block button, remember you can always unblock.
If you grew up online, you probably have experienced this. Your online friend just disappears. Maybe their account got deleted, or the website you use to talk about is no more. Some people take breaks from social media, or tear down their accounts and rebuild them somewhere else. All it takes is a changed username to make reconnecting with an online friend very difficult.
Of course, this can happen IRL too. Friends move away or become hermits. In either case, always get more contact info than just the social media site they're on. It's the perfect example of putting all your eggs in one basket.
They May Not Be What They Seem
The cliché of the online friend lying about who they are is exaggerated, especially in an age when you can see photos or video of them with ease, but if you're on a more anonymous message board, exercise caution when making an online friendship, especially if you're younger. Obviously, you shouldn't accept an invitation to hang out with someone until you know for sure they're real.
Too Many Online Friends
Having too many online friends, or friends in general, can devalue your friendship. As mentioned before, sometimes you can get blocked, and the person blocking will then move onto another friend. The internet has allowed us to make friends with a lot of people, but there is a disadvantage to that. If the two of you are only friends, that friendship is hard to break. But if you two have a bunch of other unrelated friends, it can be a problem.
According to Dunbar's Number, you can only have 150 stable relationships. There are exceptions to this, but if you have thousands of Facebook friends, only a chunk of them are going to be your friend. It's up to you to figure out which of those friends are real.
As you can see, online friends are just as valuable as real life friends, and IRL friends have their pros and cons as well. As long as you have some common sense, making online friends can be valuable. Just communicate well, make sure who you're talking to is genuine, and prepare to make a friendship that will last a lifetime. And maybe one day, that online friend will become your real-life friend.