In the age of digital interaction, what counts as friendship?


While talking to my assistant yesterday I mentioned my love of podcasts. Without thinking I said, “I have two friends who host a thought provoking podcast on Sunday afternoons”. As soon as the words fell out of my mouth, I started to question my use of the term “friend”. I started to wonder, “are they my friends or are they acquaintances”? Why did I choose that word, and why was it so easy to think of them as friends even though we’ve never met face to face? In the age of superficial connections via social media, who is it that we can truly call our friend and who, an acquaintance?

Merriam Webster defines an acquaintance as:  Someone who is known but who is not a close friend The state of knowing someone in a personal or social way : the state of knowing someone as an acquaintance

This definition doesn’t seem to be at all helpful. If you know someone in a personal way, wouldn’t that person be your friend, or someone, because you personally know what she or he is like, is someone to avoid? We need a better definition.

Thanks to Facebook, we have come to loosely throw the term “friend” around when speaking about someone we’ve had even the slightest contact with. Before FB installed its Page feature, celebrities and authors looking to engage with their fans had to become “Friends” with them. Back in 2012 I became “friends” with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and even had a one on one conversation with him, but in no way did that count as friendship. So what does?

Who is the friend and who is the acquaintance?

Take these two people as examples: one is someone with whom I am in almost daily contact with, even if it’s a quick note on her FB wall. We’ve been in contact for almost 9 years. In those 9 years we’ve managed an online book club together, wrote long personal e-mails (I owe her one) and have exchanged Christmas gifts. I can still recall the thrill of picking out books for her daughter’s 6th birthday. But for all of that, we’ve never met face to face. The other is someone that I went to school with. Someone I hung out with middle school (somewhere in my collection of pictures is one of us dancing at my 13th birthday party). Of course we lost contact after high school and it wasn’t until the invention of FB did we reconnect. I have no idea what his wife’s name is, or how long they’ve been married. Once in a while we post a comment on each other’s wall, and give the obligatory birthday greeting. Yet despite the fact that he and I went to school together and at one time had a personal relationship, I’d be hard pressed to say we are truly friends. He has become an acquaintance, while my online friend and I share a very close personal relationship.

The above example seems obvious, we are learning in large part thanks to the Internet, that real friendships can develop even if distance keeps us apart. But that doesn’t answer my original question, given that we can now connect with authors, podcasters, bloggers etc. Who is it that we can truly call our friend and who an acquaintance?  Have we’ve been conditioned to use this term as a catch all for our daily social interactions? What is the line between friendship and a casual acquaintance? Surly not everyone we interact with are true friends.

That last question was key to my understanding of why I called the two above mentioned podcasters my friends. I’ve subconsciously formed an idea of whom I call friend. We all have I’m sure. I even suspect we all have list of what makes up a friendship or at least a vague idea of such a list.

The more I pondered the term “friend” and how I use it, the more important this list seemed to be. So I sat down and wrote one out in order to answer my question and understand why I called two guys I’ve never met, friends. This is how I determine whom I feel comfortable calling friend. I was a little hesitant to share it, as I am sure there will be those reading it that don’t agree or may feel uncomfortable with my idea of friendship. Don’t worry, most of you will never be asked to help me move or get that frantic 2am call.

I once had a boyfriend tell me my internet relationships were not real. He's gone, but my online friends remain.
I once had a boyfriend tell me my internet relationships were not real. He’s gone, but my online friends remain.

You might be Sari’s friend, even though we’ve never met if:

We’ve stayed in contact for a long period of time, even if that contact has moved from one form of social media to another. We’ve shared our ups and downs and know as much, if not more, than the people in our daily lives.

You share personal pictures and stories on your FB wall and or blog and we talk about them, and we do this on a regular basis. I know about your family and your achievements and you know about mine. We cheer each other on and give sympathy when needed.

We feel comfortable posting possible unpopular opinions, knowing the other will not be offended because we both value honesty and differing points of view. And we do this quite often.

I am one of the few people that you will get back to right away. Whenever I e-mail or send a quick Tweet, you make sure to respond right away. We may not communicate often but when we do it is never shallow or impersonal.

Our conversations have moved beyond what brought us together in the first place. If we stay on one topic, then we are acquaintances who share similar tastes and worldviews.

In short, those I call friends know and value my opinions, take me for who I am and are comfortable being themselves around me. We share pieces of our lives, sometimes small, and sometimes more than we share with others. We may not be in constant contact, but when we do communicate it is always a good feeling. And that, I believe, is the cornerstone of all friendships, no matter the distance between us.

I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.
William Shakespeare Richard II

If you have an idea or list of things that you use to determine friendship let us know. All comments are welcome.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

2 thoughts on “In the age of digital interaction, what counts as friendship?”

  1. Even if I’ve never met you, would I joyfully look forward to sitting down for a conversation with you?

    The question excludes people you knew pretty well once, like old high school classmates, who you still know on Facebook but would never think of outside of reunions. And it includes people I’ve never met in the flesh, but think I would like to meet because we do talk about so much. (Of course, that notion could be mistaken, but that’s a risk even with well-established friends.)

    Keep in mind such things existed before the Internet; there were epistolary friendships, some of which started out as common interests (H.P. Lovecraft never met many of his horror writer friends except through letters) but sometimes even through commercial transactions (e.g., “84 Charing Cross Road.”) But you’re right in pointing out how much more common such geographically-challenged friendships have become.

    My own blog attracted two readers who got in touch with me via the e-mail link on my blog, and the three of us have since not just followed each others’ blog, but also corresponded by e-mail, shared personal observations, and even sent gifts to each other. Yet one is more than 1,000 miles away and the other is on another continent. Are we friends? I’d say so. And yet, I must admit, I don’t know whether we could stand each other’s company in person!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You are right. I am old enough to remember pen pals. I had one as a young girl and cherished that relationship.
    One really great thing about the internet that it quickly connected us to people would would otherwise never meet.
    I am hopeful that everyone one I consider a friend would be someone I’d love to spend time with talking over coffee, including you.

    Liked by 2 people

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