Are Online Friendships Inherently Shallow?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Last week I was reading a Guardian article by Ewan Morrison, "Why Social Media Isn't the Magic Bullet for Self-Epublished Authors." Morrison discusses problems and fallacies about self-promotion via social media. He takes an honest look at some of the things that have been touted to help but haven't proven to increase sales: including tweeting, buying Facebook ads, or hiring marketing companies to help improve your social media platform.

He said this, "As individuals and companies abandon Facebook advertising, and finally come to realise that Twitter does not increase sales for the vast majority of writers, then the very idea of using social media to sell books will begin to collapse."

I don't agree one hundred percent with everything Morrison said. But I do concur that we'll fail IF we approach social media with THE goal of selling more books.

Social media was never intended to become a giant billboard for every writer. 

The same way the phone was never intended to be a place for businesses to call and bug us with those annoying "ad calls." When I pick up the phone, I don't want someone on the other end trying to sell me something or trying to get me to donate to their charity.

Instead, when I answer my phone, I want to talk to a REAL person AND have a REAL conversation.
But is it possible to build REAL relationships on social media?

We can complain about how the "social" is gone from social media these days. And we can talk about the need to keep our social media sites places of community, encouragement, and learning.

However, even if we make efforts to have more conversations, are those connections merely an under-handed way to gain popularity and followers? Are we guilty of using each other to build our platforms? Are we ultimately having conversations with one another for the ulterior motive of trying to sell more books?

After all, we've been told if we build our "tribes" or "teams" they'll become some of our strongest supporters and promoters when our books release.

But how REAL and strong are internet connections, especially if they're based on ulterior motives for gaining promoters?

In the Guardian article, Morrison says, "the internet is good at forming weak, not strong links. Commitment on the net is shallow."

Of course, after reading his statement, I had to stop and evaluate all of the connections I've formed online over the past few years. I admit. Many of the friends I made early in blogging have fallen away. I don't keep in touch with them, and they don't visit my blog anymore either. And yes, some of my twitter connections have never gone beyond a few tweets.

But, over time and with effort, I've also made some really solid friends, writers with whom I share my deepest joys and struggles. They do likewise with me.

And THOSE are the kinds of friends who now go out of their way to support me when my book releases. They genuinely WANT to help me. And I love to help them too with endorsements, book reviews, advice, etc.

In my opinion, that's what social media is all about—forming genuine, mutually beneficial friendships. When we do that, we won't have to worry about social media "collapsing" on us. And we won't need to resort to spam because our friends will be excited to help us spread the news to their circles of influence. Their word-of-mouth is better than the best spam we could ever come up with.

So how do we go about creating mutually beneficial friendships on social media?

1. Check our motives. Anytime we base relationships (whether online or in real life) on selfish motives, the relationships will be shallow. We need to go into friendships without the ulterior motives for selling our books or gaining popularity. If we're doing that, people will eventually find out. And no one likes feeling used.

2. Quality is better than quantity. As tempting as it is, to try to increase our follower numbers on social media sites, we're better off to go deep with a few friends rather than be shallow with many.

3. Take the time to be a friend. Every friendship takes some effort, especially in the beginning. Whether in real life or online, we have to be a friend to have a friend.

4. Don't expect anything in return. Give to people without demanding something back. If I buy a friend's book to support her, I don't turn around and ask her to buy mine. If I endorse someone's book, I don't hold it over her head expecting high praise on mine. I give without strings attached. Always.

So are internet relationships inherently shallow?

They don't have to be.

Like any relationships we form (whether in real life or online), we get out of a relationship what we put in.

What's your experience been so far with online relationships? Are they more shallow than real life relationships? Or is it possible to get beyond the motive of selling books to have real friendships?


  1. Thanks for such a great post :) Like you said motivation is key. If your motivation is to "sell more" or "get more followers so you're more attractive to a publisher" rather than to build relationships, then yes.

    However, if you go into wanting to engage, meet new people, share your experiences encourage others etc. with everything else being a bonus then no.

    The most wonderful relationships and connections I've made are ones where I've gone in with no ulterior motives. Where I've gone in thinking I should do something to try and build some kind of "following" or "network" with people who may one day be "influencers" for me the only thing my efforts have resulted in is revealing my own selfishness!

    1. I agree, Kara. The most wonderful relationships are those where there are no ulterior motives, the ones where we encourage and support each other without the underlying effort of trying to sell or network. I appreciate those friends the most, and so that's the kind of friend I want to be too.

  2. Nice post. I treat my online relationships exactly like my offline ones - some people are acquaintances, some are very good friends, some have supported and helped me through my toughest times. It doesn't matter one bit that I haven't met any of these people ever. But they are as real as any of my 'real' friends & acquaintances. If I am promoting any of my work online, I know that my strong supporters will be the first to encourage me and they are the reason behind my courage and self-confidence today. However, I don't expect every single person on my friends' list on FB to pat my back, because it's just like in the real world, isn't it? Not all your friends get the time to keep in touch all the time!

    1. YES! I like how you put it! We are going to have levels of friends online just like we do in real life. Some people will be acquaintances, others good friends, and then a circle of inner friends that are there for you through thick and thin. We can't be best friends with everybody. We spread ourselves too thin when we try to do that.

  3. I've definitely developed some online friendships that are as meaningful to me as a friend I see every day. At least, that's how I feel about them. :)

    I've also had experience with online relationships that are here today, gone tomorrow. :(

    I cherish the meaningful ones! And I don't see Twitter and Facebook as a place to "sell" my eventual books. I see them as places to connect with the friends I've already formed and to hopefully reach out to new ones. And with those friendships, I hope to drop in some good news from time to time about books I hope to publish just like I would with my real life friends.

    1. Hi Heather, I've had those here today, gone tomorrow kinds of relationships too, both online and off. I long for deeper connections, but it can't happen with everybody. So I count it a joy when I can form good, solid friendships where I can be honest and share my excitement about things, including my books. In fact, I consider my closest friends the place where I CAN share the most about my joys and struggles with my writing journey. And I know they care. :-)

  4. I agree with Morrison about Twitter and Facebook. Blogging is like visiting a virtual home of sorts, and it's so compelling seeing what your blogging friends genuinely love to read. A handful of geniune supporters beats a promotional tool any day.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      I think blogging is like visiting a virtual home too. With Twitter or FB, there's just not enough space and time to sit back and enjoy a leisurely coffee. They're more like a quick text or break to chat for a few minutes. But that kind of chatting won't help develop the deepness of relationships we long for. I think the deeper friendships happen via blogging and perhaps even some emailing. And I've even found that meeting online friends in person helps solidify friendships too.

  5. Great points! I've never been able to fully embrace Twitter. I keep my account, follow those that follow me,tweet my blog and share other blogs there, but I don't feel any connection. Facebook works for me, because pretty much everyone there really is a friend of mine from other parts of my life. However, I really feel like I know the bloggers that I follow. If I ran into you at a convention, I know we'd immediately have things to talk about, because for over a year, I've been reading your concerns, joys and advice (AND your books). It will be interesting to see where this social media thing goes.

    1. That's true about Facebook, Jane. In the busyness of life I appreciate being able to keep up with real life friends on Facebook. Then we get together I feel that I've stayed somewhat connected with them.

      And I completely relate to what you're saying about blogging. The bloggers I've met in real life at conferences have felt like old friends. We already have an investment in each others' lives and so it's a joy to be together and continue the conversations!

  6. Hi, Jody. I'm new to the online community of writers, but I have to say that I'm blown away with the connections and relationships I've begun to form. Some are shallow - a hello here, a hello there - but others have become very personal and very special to me. But that's the same in real life. I belong to a MOPS group and the same thing can be said for my relationships there. I think what takes online relationships to a whole new level is when you connect in person (which I'll be doing at ACFW next month). I'm so thankful I made my online friends so that when I go to Texas I won't be walking in alone. Each relationship we make is unique and serves a different purpose in our lives. We shouldn't clump all online relationships in the same group, just as we shouldn't clump all "real" relationships, either. And, for what it's worth, the few times we've chatted on Twitter or Facebook has encouraged me as a writer! I hope I can return the encouragement!

  7. I've been really, really blessed to meet some amazing people online. I may have originally jumped into social media because "that's what you're supposed to do," but I was beyond astounded and blessed by the true friendships I found there. I cannot wait to solidify many of the friendships by meeting people next month at ACFW. :)

  8. I wonder if other writers have had to deal with the disappointment of having (off-line) friends and relatives not purchase even one of their books. Somehow I assumed that everyone would be prepared to spend $5. to purchase the e-book version. Maybe they're not really readers or not readers of a particular genre but after all, they've spent that much to buy me a coffee or a birthday card more than once. Then it becomes hard not to make a private list of real friends and people you thought were your friends. It's probably small minded, but there it is. (maybe they expected a free copy).

  9. Jody, I have made many good friends online, including one that lives many states away from me and is now coming for her SECOND visit to see me next week.

    However, I agree with all the rest - I've noticed Twitter is just a constant stream of advertising, and I don't like it. It's a real turn-off.

  10. Great tips, Jody! I love having an online community that you can belong to. Blogging can make such a difference how we connect to other people even though it is online and we may never meet our followers in person. But it's worth it to have some friendships online. You have to make an effort at it though and that's the toughest part.

  11. Jody: Good stuff, as always.
    I have made some good friends online. By that, I mean friends that I care about. Friends that I "talk" to on a regular (daily or almost daily) basis. Friends that I encourage and that encourage me. Friends that I pray with. Sometimes we even talk on the phone.
    All of these things add up to significant relationships.
    But I also have plenty of shallow relationships too.
    Friends who are "friends" just because the friended me. Or followed me. Or because they are writers like me.
    I'm re-evaluating what I'm doing, who I am, what I what to do via social media. I want to control social media -- not have it control me.
    I still go back to the idea that at the end of every tweet and comment and like is a person. I obviously can't be friends with hundreds or thousands of people.
    I'm still trying to figure out how to connect with readers -- and social media is only one way to do that.

  12. I've met some great friends online, and those relationships definitely go beyond selling books. Even if I gave up writing (I hope that never happens) I would still want to stay in touch with several of the ladies I've met through blogging, twitter, and Facebook.

  13. Jodi,

    Thanks for the great post and the timely charge to keep it real.

    I've been querying this last week and working on polishing my proposal and the "platform" section just sits in my craw like a pebble. I finally stated that I don't want a one-sided following, but that I want to be a member of a village. I so much prefer the idea of a tribe to a platform - I want people to seek me out NOT to follow me, but to be alongside me, interacting with me, to share the journey with me.

    To that end, I really believe that some of my online "friends" are even more in tune to this than my "real-life" friends - and I think that is one of the wonderful aspects about the whole online thing. We are actually seeking others out who are like-minded, like-hearted, and like-passioned about life. It is in this circle where I can be the realest about my dreams and my goals for my writing which is a HUGE piece of who I am.

    Blessings - and thanks for sharing today,

  14. Great post, Jody. I've had to cut way back on social media this summer, but I love knowing that my friends are still here and love me regardless. :)

    I have a feeling that gaining social media followers is similar to gaining book readers. Genuine interest in others goes a long way in this business--and in life. :)

  15. I think that online friendships can be real and meaningful. Today we have technology like Facebook and Skype, where we can see people face to face and engage in real conversation. It just depends on how much effort you want to put in to building a relationship. The potential is there.

    That being said, I read that article and while I agree with some of the points Morrison made in regard to sales, I use the internet for more than building a platform. There is a community here that I can't necessarily find locally. Sure, people might support me as a writer, but do they really know what I go through day in and day out? Frankly, what I do is an oddity for most of them. At least online, I can support and be supported by other writers. I can establish a deeper connection here, actually, where that aspect of my life is concerned.

    Great post, Jody!

  16. Jodi,

    I've been blogging, FaceBooking, and tweeting right at a year, now.

    The only disappointment has been the realization that social media is not a magic bullet for selling books.

    The unexpected suprise blessing, though, has been the number of sincere new friends I've met and old friends I've reconnected with.

    The surprise blessing far outweighs the disappointment. I'm glad I became involved in social media...I just didn't realize the purpose until I got involved.

  17. Hmmmm... thinking aloud.

    I LOVE connecting with other writer's on facebook/twitter, and it is NOT just to sell books. I think we'd all be lying to say if we didn't hope for that too, but I'd still connect if I wasn't, because there's a likemindedness there and a shared passion, and isn't that where a lot of friendships start?

    I haven't been nearly as active on other blogs and other people's facebook pages the last few years. I've "lost" quite a few of those early friendships since then, but I don't think (or at least I hope it's not!) because our friendship was weak, but because it's just like a marriage. When you back off and don't try as hard, the bond becomes loser and more easily broken.

    I'm trying to get "back" because to be honest, I really really miss my writer's friends, you included!!! I have a whole new set of friends I've created (heart momma friends) because we have our own connection, but I also ache to connect to my writer friends because they get my strange head, they can encourage me as much as I hope I can encourage them!

    Will it sell more books? Who knows. But surrounding yourself with like minded people is a good thing, regardless!

  18. Jody,
    You really nailed it. It's not the quantity, but the quality of a writer's online connections, I agree about the importance of developing meaningful relationships online. As you said, it's about sharing with no expectation of any return on the favor. It's about being useful to other people. When I think of the term online community, the emphasis is on "community" and everything that entails. My online strategy is based on finding other authors who are committed to the craft and being useful to them. In every case the sharing is two-fold. Thanks for a great post.

  19. Hey Jody ~ as a blogger (as opposed to a writer)I've made some amazing friendships online with authors, bloggers and publicists. Living on the other side of the world from most of them is an interesting thing, that's for sure. Two of my dearest, most beloved friends I've not yet met in person. Keeping in touch via Twitter, FB, email and Skype has proved to be an excellent way to establish a long term friendship, although it is unusual and doesn't work with everyone. Like any friendship, regular contact, sharing highs and lows and giving of yourself, encourages a friendship to grow whether face to face or online.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Rel! Yes, I agree. Regular communication is so key. We have to make an effort to deepen the friendship in some way. I like the idea of Skyping with friends from time to time, There's just something about face-to-face time (even via screen) that promotes relationship.

  20. Excellent thoughts, Jody. I must admit that when I started blogging four years ago, I did it to say that I had a blog for my book proposal. I was elated when the Lord used it to help me build friendships and grow as a writer. I've learned SO much from other bloggers about everything from writing kissing scenes to marketing my humor book, Two Scoops of Grace with Chuckles on Top. Today when it hit #1 on kindle in its category, I knew that was in part due to all the online friends God gave me. And I have tried to help others succeed, too.

    Without relationship, social media is a manipulative tool to boost our egos. With relationship, it's God's heart extended to lift each other up.

    And btw, Two Scoops is FREE today and tomorrow on kindle, if you're interested.

  21. Great post, Jody. You're right on. Our relationships with people online are only worth the genuineness and effort we're willing to give them.

  22. I joined a website once where you could list your blog in a directory (I can't remember the name) as a way to promote your own blog and build connections with other bloggers. But I ended up getting several e-mails from bloggers whose messages said stuff like "Follow me and I'll follow you." It seemed like all they cared about was getting more followers. I didn't respond to them, and I didn't follow their blogs either. Those kinds of relationships would definitely be shallow.
    My blog readership is fairly small, but the people who are regular readers do leave comments that mean a lot to me. And I have bought a couple books by bloggers that I follow, and I try to promote some of their work too. So like you said, a lot of what you get from an online relationship depends on what you put into it.

  23. I take my social media and online relationships (though some are new)very seriously. I see my interactions as opportunities to encourage, spread love and kindness, promote people I respect, and most of all, to be reminded to pray for people. I was one of those who went into social media kicking and screaming, and have found it to be a blessing. I especially love being connected with people I had lost track of through the years. It is genuine, if we are.

  24. I've often wondered about this myself—and I've wondered whether it has more to do with the nature of social media itself or with my own personality. I'm a rather shy person to begin with, and more than once I've hesitated over writing something in a post or tweet (or a reply to someone else's), and then ended up not saying it at all. I almost abandoned this comment a couple of times. :) And it's also a tricky business trying to balance maintaining your personal privacy online with acting natural on social media. Do you ever find that to be the case?

    All that's not to say I don't enjoy social media, or that I haven't made some friends through it. I just don't feel as much of a 'natural' at it as other people appear to be!

    1. Hi Elisabeth,

      Thanks for leaving a comment, even though you were hesitant! It IS tricky trying to balance personal privacy with online sharing. I try to be careful not to overexpose my family. And I also want to be careful about sharing my personal problems and frustrations. So it may come across to many like I'm all sunshine and roses! But I don't want to air my dirty laundry online and so reserve my grousing for closer friends. :-)

  25. Like you, I don't think they have to be. I admit I've been lax lately with twitter, FB, etc. but I try to genuinely care about the authors I support and friend. I hope they do the same. I, too, know that I don't expect "glowing reviews" in return for helping someone with their own book tour. I'm just hoping for friends to bridge the future with. Great blog post!!

  26. Great post, Jody! I wrote about this recently in talking about how social media can be an introvert's secret weapon. :) A few weeks ago, I went to RWA's national conference and met up with many of my online friends there. Several of them are some new "besties."

    Online friendships can grow into something real just as much as soccer moms can grow their sideline small talk into a real friendship. Online friendships provide opportunities to connect, nothing more, nothing less.

    1. I agree, Jami! The internet is a great way for introverts to equalize the playing field! And I've loved being able to meet up with online friends. It really does solidify the friendship and take it to a deeper level. But like any friendship, we'll get out of it what we put in (as you said, just like soccer mom sideline talk).

  27. I have also made friends online and actually met them for the past few years. We've actually continued conversing and exchanging views like old, old friends. So, online friendships might not be at all times shallow. It would depend greatly on the people being in the circle.

  28. You're absolutely right--whether in real life or online, strong relationships need a strong foundation. It really irritates me when people claim you can't form a good friendship online. I have (one friend is even an overseas penpal).

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