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How Genuine Are Online Friendships?

As writers we often hear the need to build connections, particularly online. Those relationships can help form the foundation of our marketing Team or Tribe—a group of friends who support and encourage our writing endeavors.

But how genuine are those online connections? I mean, really, how well can you get to know someone through 140-character tweets or sporadic blog comments? Are such relationships authentic? Or are they merely a phantom of real life friendships?

I posed the question over on my facebook page last week. I asked, “Do you consider the friendships you've made ONLINE to be as genuine as REAL LIFE friendships? Why or why not?”

The responses ranged from emphatic YES to absolute NO. Here’s just a sampling (feel free to read the rest of the comments here.):

Elizabeth Flora Ross: Absolutely! In fact, I have dropped the "online" label and simply refer to the people I have connected with online as friends. They are as supportive to me as my "real life" friends, and mean as much. And, in many cases, they know even more about me.

Author Jessica Bell: Some of mine are actually BETTER. I think because none of my real life friend understand my writing obsession.

Jenny Lee Sulpizio: This is a tough one. I think developing online relationships is harder than in person. Connections are made but if not kept up, or worked upon, are easily lost.

Erma Brown: No, the people you meet on face book you really don't know, they could be telling you lies and how would you know. With your true friends you know them warts and all.

In reading all the comments, I came to several conclusions:

1. We can find an enormous amount of support online from others in the same situation.

Whether cancer survivors, new moms, writers, or whatever our situation—when we link up with others who are going through a similar experience, we’re likely to find mutual support and encouragement.

As much as I love my real life friends, most of them aren’t writers and don’t understand what’s involved in my writing career. In fact, when I’m together with real life friends, we talk about ordinary things like our kids, school, and house projects. Many of them don’t grasp the significance of what I’m doing or accomplishing (even now that I’m published) and that’s okay. I don’t expect them to “get it.”

However, I need people in my life who don’t mind if I talk about my writing, who understand how hard the journey is, and who can relate to the highs and the lows. Thanks to the internet, I’ve been able to connect with those kinds of writers. And over time, many of those friends have come to understand and support me better than real life friends.

So yes, the internet provides connections that aren’t always possible in real life. But . . .

2. We may need to use extra discernment for online friendships.

While the possibilities for forming online friendships can be very beneficial, I believe we need to use caution too. It’s easy to hide behind our screens and only give people glimpses into our lives—sometimes even a false picture of who we really are. We can hide our warts (as Erma said above).

Of course, we can put on facades for our real life friends too. But when we’re online we have more control. We can choose what to reveal, to whom, and how much—which isn’t always possible in real life.

I’m not saying we should dump our personal garbage in cyberland for all the world to see. But I do think we should attempt to be as real as possible. If you were to meet an online friend for the first time, would your online persona match who you are in real life? Would your friends feel like they’re meeting a total stranger or would they feel like they already know you?

3. Whether online or real life, friendships take work.

It’s just not possible to form close relationships with everyone we meet online, especially as we’re broadening our web presence. We’ll spread ourselves too thin and stress ourselves out trying to keep up. We can (and should) remain friendly to everyone, encourage others, reach out, and be a blessing to those we come across.

But, we all need a smaller cluster of friends that we can relate to on a more intimate basis. For many writers, that group usually ends up being their critique partners.

Like any friendship, there has to be a mutual give and take to grow closer. Essentially, we have to be the kind of friend we want in return.

What about you? Do you consider your online friendships to be as genuine as real life? Why or why not? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue!

41 comments:

  1. Thanks for the mention :o) Personally, I CAN'T act. So I'm always giving myself over completely. I once got a comment from someone who didn't quite understand the purpose of online interaction, saying that I revealed too much personal stuff on my blog. They thought I ought to seem more mysterious. It really took me by surprise. But I guess if you're not a part of the blogging community, you just don't 'get it', as you say. I honestly don't know how I ever lasted WITHOUT my online friendships.

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  2. I absolutely love your question about if we meet the person in real life, are we surprised by who they really are?

    Because I've had this experience. Some people I meet, I'm like - wow, I totally know this person.

    Others, I'm like. Whoa! Not what I expected. It's an interesting experience.

    Something else we get to control online that we don't with face-to-face friends is our pictures. We should choose flattering pictures of ourselves, but they have to look like us. Sometimes you don't recognize a person b/c their photo is so different from what they really look like.

    Anyway - all this to say. I aspire to be real on my blog and online. To be as authentic as possible.

    And yes, I've made some pretty amazing friendships online. One that I'm thinking of right now just came about.

    BUT, in the same breath, I think those friendships jump to a new level when you do actually get to meet face-to-face.

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  3. I think it goes both ways. I actually met my best friend on a blog three years ago. We connected right away, and if it weren't for her, I wouldn't be writing. We visit each other every six weeks or so and have gotten to know each other's families.

    I have several other online friends I can turn to and consider to be important in my life, and I think it's because online, I feel like I can be more myself. I've always been a better writer than a talker, so it's easier for me to express myself this way.

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  4. Like Katie, I've been blown away by the online friends I've had the pleasure of meeting in person. Mostly, those meetings have been oh-my-gosh-you're-just-like-you-are-online! I love meeting online buddies face to face b/c it makes the relationship that much stronger, but I also enjoy connecting with people through twitter, facebook and of course, through blogging.

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  5. I haven't made a close friend via social media yet, but I could see how it could happen, especially if you meet each other in person at an event. On the other hand, I have come across quite a number of people in the It-would-be-interesting-to-meet-her category, so I certainly don't dismiss the possibility of friendships rising from surprising places.

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  6. You've heard of friends for a reason, friends for a season, right? That's what this post reminds me of. The ability to relate to online friends is strong, creating a great potential for bonding.

    I have a small cluster of friends in real life and online I treasure like you wouldn't believe. I thank God for them!
    ~ Wendy

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  7. In thinking about my own strongest online friendships, I agree with Katie and others who said that when you meet an online friend in person, the friendship is strengthened, even if you only connect once or twice in real life.

    Though I met my husband "in person" and we dated for several months before going away to different colleges, we really got to know each other, and fell in love, through writing daily letters. Since I'm a writer, Ken's written words were certainly the way to my heart.

    I think it's the same with online friends, especially for us writers. We get to know people sometimes BETTER via online connections, and great friendships are about truly knowing the other person.

    I have several online friendships that date back almost 10 years. But the ones that feel "set in stone" are with people I've met in person at least once or twice.

    Great post!

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  8. I treat all people, whether online or in the "real world" as friends until they otherwise prove themselves guilty of being "someone whom I'd rather not be friends". I am just as polite and respectful to all. I despise the kind of people who just wants to sidle up to you online because they want to just promote at you, or to gain your support for their writing when they offer none in return, or to use you as a beta reader for a draft and then ditch you when they don't want to know anymore. These are the people that give internet friendships a bad name, and I implore other people to avoid these kinds.

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  9. I'm so thankful for the online writing community. I live in an area that's more wilderness than anything else and has a very low population. I have friends here, yes. None that understand writing. I've made online friends and I'm thrilled that I'll get to meet some of them this year when I go to ACFW conference.

    I know my writing would not be where it is if some online friends hadn't taken me under their wings. So I guess I'll always be thankful for my online pals, though there's a very different dynamic to an online relationship.

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  10. Springer Spaniels said: I despise the kind of people who just want to sidle up to you online because they want to just promote at you, or to gain your support for their writing when they offer none in return, or to use you as a beta reader for a draft and then ditch you when they don't want to know anymore. These are the people that give internet friendships a bad name.

    My response: I agree! When we have a self-serving attitude online, it's going to turn people off. No one ever wants to be used. I make it my policy to give my help freely, without strings attached. If I do something for someone, I don't expect anything in return. I'm not keeping tabs. In other words, I want to be the kind of friend I'd like in return.

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  11. I'm drawn to authenticity, and I feel like I know some of our blogger friends although we've never met in person. I've been following their blogs for years and their true selves come through in their posts. Genuineness is difficult to fake!

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  12. This is a really fabulous topic. I believe the basic "Do unto others as you'd have done to you." If someone is sweet enough to consistently visit your blog and offer kind words, or retweet your tweets, etc.,we should return the favor to the best of our ability. Unfortunately not everyone feels that way. The thing to remember is that some people will support you and care about your journey and some will not. Online friends or not...a friend is someone that knows, likes, trusts and supports you.

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  13. I met a few friends through an online message board eleven years ago. Today, I'm still very close with 1 of them. She understands me in a way that none of my other friends do.

    I met a group of writers at a retreat, but 90% of our communication is done online. Those girls are so real to me and vital to every aspect of my life.

    My real life friendships are genuine too. They may not understand the writing life, but they appreciate it and get me in other ways.

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  14. I am astounded by how close I feel to certain people I've connected with online. And like you and other writers, I need the support of those who really understand what this journey is like. So yes, they are genuine friendships, even though we haven't actually met in person.
    Karen

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  15. Excellent question, and a sad one, IMO.

    The other day I deleted my FaceBook account. It was full of people--writers--that I didn't like. Furthermore, I knew they wouldn't like me if I ever expressed my true opinions. It became extremely stressful to keep giving out the attagirls to people who were snarky and partisan. That, and keep buying books that I didn't really care for, just to show support for my "friends."

    Who needs this?

    I prefer Twitter where it's easy to follow and unfollow, and I love blogs. If I read your blog and decide we're not compatible, I just don't come back. Now that's the way I like my online life to be! I don't comment much, but I do love your blog.

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  16. What a great question. I've never thought of this before. I'd say these relationships are "different." Not better or worse, but connecting with writer friends on line definitely satisfies a need in my life.

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  17. As an introvert who often is mistaken for an extrovert, I find a comfort in online friendships.

    I give a LOT to relationships, and it is really exhausting. Online, you can still give a lot (care, be there for people, etc) but it is less taxing than the in person interactions. For me anyway.

    Plus, there is something freeing about having friends who DON'T know your family and history. There are no preconceived ideas about who are or who you should be.

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  18. Hi Jody,
    Very complex but fascinating subject. I have been making online friends for the last twelve years (even before FB and Twitter) and I have run the whole gamut, from landing job offers to an infamous cyber romance. I would say bad experiences are the norm, and that has turned me into a suspicious and defensive person when it comes to online acquaintances. However, I also have a friend/Beta Reader that for the last eleven years has been more supportive than members of my own family. And I have met online friends on the flesh with disastrous results (one still owes me $200). So it’s a fifty-fifty situation. It´s much easier fighting with a real person than with someone you have to think before you write down an angry reply.

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  19. Even though I'm still new to the online world in terms of facebook and blogging, I found out early on how blessed I am to be able to talk to other writers every day and read their blogs. Of course, it's not the same as a conversation in person, but I believe online friendships can deepen over time just like any other.

    I have one close friend in real life who understands my passion for writing. Most people, including a few family members and some other friends, truly don't understand why I pursue this dream. In their eyes, it's whimsical. So when I'm in the company of other writers, be it online or in real life, I find a connection that's been missing.

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  20. Like many of the others have said, I believe it can go both ways. I think we have to be very careful with online friendships. How do we know who they really are? After all, how do you think the cops arrest so many online predators -- By pretending to be someone else. Unless you've met someone face to face, I don't think you can ever be too sure about who someone else really is.

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  21. I'm a lot like Brandi, new to online society. I think the online buddies that I'm starting to make can become true friends, although I would have to admit that personal contact is usually necessary for me to really feel that connection. But as I'm online more and more, this feeling might diminish.

    Being able to get a glimpse into the world of publishing and the expertise of writers has been invaluable. My closest friends aren't really even into reading and they don't get my writing fetish at all, although it amuses the tar out of them when I talk about the characters in my head!
    So, having a literary presence that I can tap into is like a fountain in the desert - full of encouragement, inspiration, and kindred spirits.

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  22. I think our friendships online can be authentic and very, very special, if we are willing to be honest, open, and work to keep those connections alive.

    I recently connected with someone online whom I believe God brought to me specifically for many, many reasons. I've been honest, and I believe she has too, so on the day we ever actually get to meet in person, I know I'll be staring into a face I may not know well, but a heart I've known for a long time.

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  23. I treasure my online friendships as much as I do my real life ones. Sometimes my online friends are more supportive becuase we do the same things (writing) and understand how each other thinks.
    I would be LOST without my support group and they're all online - or started there and now we've moved on to txts :)

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  24. Great post. I have made some fabulous friends online. But I hope to meet them someday!

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  25. I used to write loads of fan fiction (I think that comes under the heading of 'separate debate altogether'!) and that's where many of my first online interactions originated, several of which have lasted about seven years. I finally took the plunge and met one of them last year and, because we'd been talking candidly with fewer inhibitions that real life, I probably coped a lot better in meeting her than I would with someone I already knew on sight. We got on pretty well I think - well enough for us to be seeing Liza Minnelli in London on Wednesday anyway!

    I think the chance to think before you speak (or in this case) type is a good aid to friendships. I come across much more coherent online.

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  26. OM Gawsh-my name is in lights! LOL. I thought this was a great question Jody and I am so glad I answered it.

    I agree with Katie, that some people you can connect with right away but with others, you just may be worlds apart...and that's totally ok.

    Blessings and thanks again for the "shout-out." Woot-Woot!

    Jenny Lee Sulpizio
    Author of "Mommy Whispers"

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  27. I'm part of an online group of writers that dates back over five years. What began as a writing group has evolved -- we share heartaches and joys about all aspects of our lives, we're there for encouragement and nudging as needed.

    Many of us have now met each other, but I don't feel that's made a big difference -- one of the people I feel closest to in that group is on the other side of the world.

    Are they real friends? Absolutely.

    I've recently joined Twitter, and while I'm making lots of fun writer acquaintances, I don't feel particularly close to any of them yet. Will that happen eventually? Yes, most likely, as we start to connect outside of Twitter. Until then, I'll just enjoy the surface interactions.

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  28. Online friendships are very interesting to look at.

    Two of my very best friends were met online. One of them I've visited numerous times and she's been to visit me. The other I've never met in person, never talked to on the phone, and probably never will. But she is one of my dearest friends in all the world. We've been corresponding for nearly a decade now. When one of us having Internet problems, we get out the pen and paper and keep right on going.

    I've made some great Facebook friends too, but none of those can compare to these two friendships I've had for nearly a decade. Funny thing is, I met both of them on the same message board, but they're not friends with each other!

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  29. This is probably dumb, but my "online" friends probably know me better than my "in person" friends! Wow... that is SAD now that I say that. I think partially due to my past circumstances... I worked all day, came home and had a few hours with my kids, wrote a few hours after bedtime, then woke up and did it all over again. I didn't have "time" to get involved in women's groups, mom's groups, etc. I made friendships at work, but those were pretty surface except for a few. But my online friends... I can connect to in the little bits of time I have. I am pretty transparent on my blog, and have actually gotten to know my "local" friends better online with facebook.

    Now that I'm "at home" I hope overtime that it changes a bit, but for now I'm SO SO thankful for my online friends (you being one of them!) who support my writing and support ME. It's SO much fun to be able to connect with other writers!

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  30. Just as IRL, the online community is full of both genuine and less than honorable people. As authors trying to promote themselves we must be careful. It's necessary to share a certain amount of yourself in order to make a connection with your audience. However, you must find the balance of not sharing too much with individuals who might take advantage of or even cause harm. It can be a tenous balancing act. Prayer is the best help.

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  31. Love your perspective. Thank you for sharing.

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  32. I am an absolute true believer in the authenticity of online friendships. Twelve years ago I met my husband online (just via chatting, not a dating site or anything.) So obviously it's worked well for me, lol. I think, especially for introverts, you often are more yourself online than you are when you meet new ppl in real life. So it makes the connections easier and quicker.

    I'm going to RWA Nationals this week and I'm going to meet SO many online writer friends for the first time face to face and I'm so excited. I have no doubt we'll all get along in person just as well as we get along online. :)

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  33. Interesting discussion, Jody! Like others have said, I love meeting online friends in person. It just seems to solidify that friendship even more. And to Katie's comment about photos...Oh dear, I don't think anyone would want to see a photo of me right now. I just finished an hour of Zumba. This frizzy ponytail would scare you all away! :)

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  34. I truly think if you are yourself and are as real online as you are in person, then absolutely you can create genuine online friendships. I think it is really up to ourselves of how genuine it is.

    And like you said in your comment reply to Springer Spaniels, I try to be the friend to others that I would like in return. I truly enjoy seeing my online friends have success and reach milestones. I enjoy cheering them on from cyberspace when they are needing a little push. I actually woke up today thinking about how wonderful some of my online friendships are and how grateful I was. Knowing that I have great people supporting me and "getting" me makes me feel more complete as a person.

    My in-person friends are polite and ask how my writing is going then their eyes glaze over. We stick to kids, marriage, neighborhood news, etc.. With online friendships, I feel like I can actually talk about it all.

    My biggest complaint is that none of my online friends live anywhere near me! I would love to meet every single one of them but until I find quick and cheap way to do that, Skype will have to do.

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  35. Great discussion topic. I think there's a place for both and different I guess I view it "ministry" functions in relationships. As a mom who homeschools my relationships tend to be centered in functions. Many of our closest friends attend our church and we have come to know them in a deeper way by sharing through praying together and Bible studies in a way I'm not sure you could find online.

    As a homeschool mom, we are quite involved in a local group. These are friends that we see throughout the week through field trips and such and we often find we share a similiar vision.

    My third group of friends at this point would be my writer friends. They are largely online. Because I have joined local writers groups, but they are not Christian and so there's not the same connection there. I have been able to meet several blogger friends. I wish I had a real life local Christian friend who wrote, but I've been blessed by the friendships I've made online through blogging.

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  36. The trust factor in cyber relationships is something to consider, but I find after months or years of interaction with someone online my instinct tells me if the person is being genuine. I still don't think it's wise to post too much personal information, especially about our families, because there's no way of knowing who browses our sites for dishonorable reasons. But with the filter of a little caution and discrimination, plus a lot of good sense, it's possible to discover those who honestly share our interests and may become true friends. The people I've met through various writing connections have become as important to me as my real time friends, and often understand me better.

    Just yesterday I met one of my special cyber friends for the first time -- Joylene Butler and I have communicated online for 2-1/2 years but had never met. We managed to arrange a rendezvous while we were both travelling this week, her to a book tour and me to a granddaughter's graduation. We had less than two hours to visit and we couldn't talk fast enough! It was a precious time and cemented what I had already known... that this was a relationship to treasure.

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  37. I have never been disappointed when I met in person an online friend. I think if we use discernment we can see who is genuine and who is not. I love the other writers I have met and their support has been invaluable!

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  38. To me, it's a matter of apples and oranges, though perhaps that's because in my life the two worlds have rarely intersected. But it does seem that the two are different species. Online relationships tend to filter out much of the subtle information that informs real-life friendships--body language, our responses to voices, ways of moving, etc. On the other hand, for the same reason, I suspect that online friendships may tend to be more narrowly focused (which could be good or bad). My $0.02 worth...

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  39. When it comes to the online writing community there are certainly genuine friendships I've found and also some of the strongest supporters.

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  40. I'm going to be immensely biased on this topic as I found my writing partner on-line and we've been close friends ever since we started to work together. Besides Ann, I have a host of others that I would consider very good friends that I met in the virtual world. Yes, you have to be discerning, but the internet gives you the opportuniy to make connections with people with common goals and interests, people you'd never have met if you only had your geographical world around you to draw from. They're very real and very satisfying friendships, and I can't imagine my life without them.

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  41. Though a regular blogger who enjoys lively dialogue with other bloggers, I frame my response to this post based on one online friendship, alone. I 'met' someone through a commercial transaction on an auction site and we sustained a close friendship for just over a year. We even exchanged gifts though the mail and spoke over the phone. It was a beautiful kinship. Just before Christmas, I wrote an email that obviously upset the person to the extent that they simply vanished off the map. It was harrowing, troubling and took me more than a year to get over. I'd say the greatest danger of online relationships is that you really can't know what a person is capable of. Though I suppose, bottom line, this can extend to face-to-face alliances just as easily.

    Well. Bit circular. :) I guess the real bottom line is that your heart can be broken just about anywhere, with or without a screen. And if taken in the right spirit, it can be strengthened by such misfortunes, too.

    Hot topic, Ms. Hedlund.

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