A friend of mine posed an interesting question the other day on Twitter. To paraphrase, what she said was ‘If you’re friends on Twitter, are you friends in real life?’. In other words, if you have a network of friends on social media, but have never met some of these people face-to-face, then can you genuinely call these people friends?
That got me thinking. Are social media contacts as deep and meaningful as long-standing friendships in the real world? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that.
Many people would say no, that online relationships are transient, fleeting and not as deep as talking to your mate in the pub. Other people would say the reverse, that sometimes you can be more open, honest and truthful when communicating with someone directly through social media or online communication.
But who’s right?
It’s all human interaction and communication
We live so much of our lives in the digital realm these days, glued to your touch screens and interacting with our fellow humans through a variety of different technological media. And it’s not just the younger generation who do this – we’ve all been pulled into the matrix.
At 45, I’m a middle-aged bloke who’s far from being at the cutting edge of anything. But even I use a fair amount of social media and online communication in my day-to-day life. On a daily basis I use:
- Twitter – both for work and for personal stuff
- Facebook – for family and friends stuff
- WhatsApp – for texts and instant messages
- Skype – for work calls and personal chats
- Instagram – for posting innumerable photos of cups of coffee
- LinkedIn – for all the pure business stuff and building of work networks
That’s a lot of time spent chatting to and messaging people who are at the other end of a modem or 4G connection. I’d say I probably know about 70-75% of these people in the real world, too – not just online. But there are some people who I’ve literally never set eyes on, and yet have communicated with on many occasions.
Being someone’s friend, in essence, is about knowing what makes them tick – it’s about understanding them, caring about them and being to support them when they need you.
Does that have to happen face-to-face?
Personally, I’d say no it doesn’t. You can share a joke, tell a funny story, listen to someone’s problem and empathise with them without being between the same four walls.
Knowing someone in real life does add an additional layer of humanity, I’d agree. Body language, eye contact and the ability to share a hug, or give a hearty slap on the back make a friendship more visceral and physical… but you can take these elements away and there’s still a core connection between two people.
The connection’s the same: the medium’s different
For the luddites who believe anything that happens online is immediately of no value, there’s a lesson to be learned. When two people communicate through a digital medium, that’s still human interaction and human communication.
At base level, any kind of human communication is about two consciousnesses connecting in some way – sharing ideas, concepts, stories, emotions and information.
This communication can happen in a number of ways, for example:
- Talking face-to-face – a mental connection could take place in the real world, through the medium of speech – where spoken words, sound waves, human eardrums and the brain’s interpretation of sound into language and linguistic meaning create the channel for communication.
- Talking through social media – a mental connection could equally take place online, through the medium of Twitter – where a typed message gets turned into zeroes and ones and is beamed over the internet to another person’s smartphone processor, where the viewer then reads these words by looking at their screen, and understands the meaning of the tweet.
What if that message was “I feel really sad today…”?
Most of us would react in the same way – we’d ask what’s up and if our friend was ok… and whether there was anything we could do to help. Does it matter if that message came to our brain through our ears or our eyes? Or via sound waves or through a digital connection?
Probably not. We connect, empathise and react in exactly the same ways. But we probably do have a journey to go on as a species before we’ll place equal value on both ways of communicating.
Making the step from online to real life
Human relationships are evolving as the world becomes ever more digital.
We already have a generation of adults in the workplace and across society who see little or no difference between real world and online communication, and use a fusion of both to stay in touch with friends, family, work colleagues and customers.
75% of UK adults own a smartphone, but 25% never use it for calls. With so many other ways to interact with the rest of humanity, many millennials (and other early adopters) choose to send a DM in Twitter, or message a mate in WhatsApp, rather than pick up the phone to talk.
Do we care about our friends any less if we talk to them through DMs and short replies to their Instagram posts? I’d say no we don’t – in fact, the more active you are on social media and online, the more likely it is that you’ve made contact with your friends on a regular (sometimes hourly or daily) basis.
We’re also living in a time when relationships and friendships can BEGIN online, and jump the digital gap to the real world. I have plenty of friends and business contacts who I met on Twitter FIRST, before meeting them in person in the real world once we’d chatted.
Far from making us less sociable, the online world is actually creating an ability to connect and engage with the rest of the world that’s never existed in any previous century. It’s more than possible for a person to have a network of friends that’s truly global, breaking down geographical, cultural and social barriers to build friendships across the planet.
So, yes, your social media friends can be real friends… we just need to understand that being a friend takes a variety of different forms in the 21st century.