Russ Unger’s latest post “We Are All Friends Here. Right?” got me thinking about the nature of friendship on and off the web. I have made a lot of new friends in the three months since I started this blog and began using Twitter. At first I told myself that I would be using both strictly for professional purposes, but the more time I’ve spent at conferences, chatting with folks on Y!Live or AIM, going out for dinners and drinks with people I’ve met through online social networks, the line between friend and colleague has started to blur.
As you’ll read in my comment on Russ’s post, I think there’s a natural compartmentalization of networks that happens online quite similar to what happens on the web.
“…when you’re connected to someone on Facebook, that’s essentially like telling them that you’re friends enough to go grab a drink at the bar. When you’re only connected on LinkedIn, you’re communicating that you are strictly colleagues and nothing more.”
In my mind, the people I add as friends on Facebook are people I don’t mind knowing some pretty personal stuff about me. And not the “personal” stuff I Twitter about. I might tell you what I did for lunch today on Twitter, but I certainly won’t be telling you what I did on my date last weekend.
On LinkedIn, the only personal information that I’ll reveal about myself is where I’ve worked and what I did there. And honestly, I probably only want to connect with you on there for one reason: I think we’ll have something to offer each other professionally in the future.
But listen up: if we haven’t met in real life and had any semblance of an actual conversation, I don’t want to connect on Facebook or LinkedIn. These systems require reciprocation (you add me, I confirm), and by having you in my network I am tacitly implying that I vouch for you. When someone else in my network comes into contact with you, our connection is an instant jolt of credibility. Or hell, if they don’t like me it just might work against you!
My point is just that I prefer to use those networks to display who I verifiably know in the physical world. For those of you I don’t know, I really hope to meet you soon. Then by all means, add me as your “friend.”
There are a whole slew of social networks that do not require reciprocation and on those I’m connected to people who simply interest me. I mean, I follow Steve Jobs on Twitter (he hasn’t updated in months!). He certainly couldn’t give a damn who I am — and though I surely give a damn or two about him, I still wouldn’t randomly share my contact info with him until I met him in person. Hi Steve, I’m right here anytime you wanna have lunch!
Some people I only know through virtual channels, and those people are important to my life, but is it fair to call them friends? Take Matthew Oliphant for instance. He and I met over Twitter because David Armano told him to follow me. After three months of frequent tweets, IMs and post-dinner Y!Live video conferences with other Twitter folks, I definitely feel close to the guy. We tease each other, talk about work, share photos, gossip, whatever. But if I had an argument with my folks, I probably wouldn’t think to talk to him about it. I suspect that if and when we meet in person it will feel totally natural (especially in part to the video chat), but maybe it’ll be really awkward and we’ll decide we don’t like each other all that much. At that point are we no longer friends, or were we not really friends to begin with? And if not, what should we call each other now?
Figuring out who I am in the virtual world has been a challenge. It’s gotten me in trouble in the past when certain people who I’ve spent some amount of time chatting with automatically assume that we’re intimately connected and then wig out when I indicate otherwise (directly or indirectly). And at times I’ve been on the other side of the equation — confused when someone who I thought I was connecting with suddenly pulls away.
Maybe the reality is that a “virtual friend” ceases to exist when you walk away from the computer, while real friends remain with you wherever you may be. But in the age of mobile devices, we’re communicating when I’m at work, at home, at the park, at the gym, at dinner, when I’m shopping, when I’m just waking up…you’re with me in all of these private moments, so maybe that’s why the line gets blurred.
How many of you have formed what feels like friendship solely online? And how do you refer to it? Does it feel like something different than the woman who sits next to you at the office or the next-door neighbor you sometimes take walks with? Could an online friend maybe know you better than a real world friend because there’s a more consistent stream of communication? Can an online friend really know you at all?