The Meaning of Friend

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?

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  1. says

    Great article! I got the link from Twitter…

    Personally, there are a couple of people I talk to online that I wouldn’t mind going for a drink with or meeting up with during a conference or something but even then, I rarely class those people as friends. They would normally be referred to as “someone I know online” when brought up in conversation.

    I do think it’s possible to maintain a friendship online, but it would take more than the occasional reply on Twitter and unless you meet up offline, I don’t think online “friends” can know you as well as offline friends – It’s all too easy to be somebody you’re not when sat behind a screen.

  2. says

    Great post, as is Russ’. I think some people may never be friends, but could be peers. Some peers could be friends. You and I are peers and I respect that. Friendship involves much more effort. Some of my best relationships are with peers rather than friends.

    Funny how that is.

  3. says

    Hey Whitney, I’m one of your “followers” on Twitter (where you can’t even have “friends” unless that is established via some other channel).

    At first, I was fairly adamant about not connecting with people unless I had actually had at least some sort of interaction with them (I have a LOT of coworkers on Facebook, but I don’t connect unless we’ve emailed, IM’d or phoned). But, more and more, it’s becoming true that I will label someone a friend (or contact, or whatever the term on the site in question) simply because I want to enjoy the level of functionality that that designation grants us.

    On LinkedIn, it means I want to connect our professional networks. On Myspace, it only means I want to be able to post more crap on your already craptastic page.

    The interesting thing is, the more options available for the connection, the more dicey it gets. On Flickr and Plaxo, are you my “friend”, or just a “contact”? Everyone at work is a contact, but some are friends, too. Sometimes it’s tough to decide. (Again, it can come down to the functionality granted. eg – in Plaxo, do I want this person to see my friend feed or my business feed…?)

    And, with Facebook’s universe of interactions, it’s more troublesome, still. I’ve joined groups where people add each other as friends just to have people to send app-required spam to. I’ve added friends just to have more people to steal stuff from in PackRat. It’s nice that I can sort these friends in lists, so I don’t forget who the hell they are, but all these people who I don’t really know are negatively impacting my “people you may know” recommendations.

    Wow, it’s almost more difficult than managing relationships in the real world. At least… from what I can remember… ;-)

  4. says

    Ah yes, the ‘Online Friends’ – Not friendships made in the conventional, real-world way, but exclusively through online activity.

    Most of my ‘friends’ on Facebook and Flickr are people I’ve never met in person and only know through the exchange of ideas/discussion/abuse (hehe) on the Internet. I’d still refer to them as ‘friends’ – especially if they are great people like Matthew Oliphant, but more recently I have also started referring to some of them as ‘associates’ instead because…well, they really don’t know me that well (and vice-versa!)

    Sadly, most of my ‘Online Friends’ will never get to know me all that well – but hey: that could be in my favour as they might like me even less if they knew me better!

    Also – I’ve subscribed to your rss feed :)

  5. says

    Nice! I think people like your much shorter version compared to my much much much longer version!

    It’s interesting to me that we share a lot of the same things–Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. and our perception of how we expect to use them is similar, but different yet.

    And that’s part of what complicates it all–we have different expectations. I expect to be in touch with a lot of my LinkedIn people–and I use that more than Facebook right now, based upon who is following me.

    And, of course, who is following your forces out your own personal filter to a degree, right? Not you, Whitney, but me, Russ. I can’t blurt things about work, things work-related, or even if I’m looking for work because I’ve got an ex-boss/co-worker/higher-up-in-the-company on all my lists.

    And, of course, how do you say “no” to those people, right?

    All of that aside, I think you’re right, Whitney. I think we’re friends–a bunch of us–and I think we’d purposefully look out for each other, but it’s also partially based-upon the foundation of our connections and/or how those have expanded.

    Either way, all this sure is cool.

  6. says

    One thing to note is that the social network has to be set up well to provide nuance. For instance, I finally had to lock up my twitter feed for privacy. I’d like to let people I know (and who want to) follow me without having to follow them, but the system won’t let me. It’s not designed that way (or seemingly isn’t).

    Now, one could argue that everyone I let see my feed I should also follow, but I don’t subscribe to that philosophy. :) Some people, even if I like them, I don’t want to follow them, for various reasons. People who, say, live twitter conferences… ;)

  7. says

    Dave, I agree that it’s easy to pretend to be the person you want to be online, but to a certain extent, my “online friends” have a much broader view into my world than my closest and oldest friends do. As someone who reads my tweets, you know pretty much in real time what I’m doing and thinking and who I’m talking to throughout the entire day. I talk to my best friend on the phone every day and I see her in person about 2-3 times a week, but even then she only gets updates. I can’t possibly fill her in on every single thing I’ve thought about or done since I last saw her, so in a way isn’t there a large part of my life she’s missing out on that you know a whole lot about?

    Mario, I think you hit the nail on the head with the term “peer.” It’s more general than “colleague,” implies equality and yet is certainly more impersonal than “friend.” But it’s like that old word problem: If some peers are colleagues, and all friends are peers, are some peers friends? :-P

    I think Ben touches on this when he talks about the “Contact” distinction that some of these sites make. On Brightkite for instance, when someone adds me as a friend I’m asked to reciprocate, but I can choose whether or not to consider them a “trusted friend” and then I can add a privacy distinction between the level of detail on my location that contacts vs. trusted friends can see.

    Perhaps it’s the subtle difference between American and British English, but Matt uses the word “associate” in place of “peer.” To me, associate is strictly work-related while peer is more often used in an academic setting. Still, both sound rather impersonal and formal.

    Russ brings up the issue of “audience” and how that affects the persona that we choose to display in various venues across the web. It’s a large enough topic that I don’t think I’d do it justice to address here…perhaps another blog post later.

    To Dan, I’m sorry for cluttering your Twittersphere. Yes, it’s kinda dumb that Twitter forces you to follow anyone who you’ve allowed to follow you (and as a result I can no longer follow you), but I suppose it’s the easiest solution for them. If it’s any consolation, I won’t be going to another conference for a while so it’s back to regular Twitter volume for me. In any case, thanks for commenting on the blog. I’m glad you’re reading it!

    P.S. Matthew was quoting Blackadder. It’s best to just ignore him ;)

  8. says


    Whilst we may be getting updates constantly and your best friend is only getting a summary, I would presume that it is balanced out with things you would talk to your best friend about but not mention over Twitter? This to me, further separates the two – Online friends may have a constant stream of thoughts and activities delivered to them but your Offline friends are much more likely to be informed of anything important and less likely to be subjected to anything too trivial ;)

  9. says

    When I first ran into this blog and “met whitney”, I really liked how she presented herself online. Relaxed, intelligent and genuine. I even commented (which I NEVER do). That spurred Twitter following but never as far as Facebook (come on, that’s sacred).

    Well today, we met for the first time at NY Web 2.0 meetup

    Twitter or WordPress didn’t make us friends before, but it certainly helped build that after meeting in real life as we had so much to talk about as we already knew a little bit about eachother. It cuts through that *sometimes* nauseating state of figuring out “is this person interesting”.

    Well in any case, great post. I think there needs to be a follow up post on the “schematics of online friendship”. I am seeing a graphic that looks like

    1. Twitter Follower
    2. Twitter Following
    3. Flickr Contact
    4. Viddler Friend Up (seriously, it’s smaller but cooler for web design ppl.)
    5. UStream or YLive for live chatting with ppl (little face to face)
    6. Maybe a Skype Voice or Phone call
    7. Meet randomly (no creepiness allowed) in real life
    8. Facebook Friend
    9 If that turns into a professional opportunity – LinkedIn it up. If it’s not, not allowed!
    10. There is one here that supersedes it all, that I can’t say, as it would come off creepishly, if anyone guesses, beers on me in NYC next time I am in town!

  10. says

    I’m happy that Twitter uses the terms “follower” and “following” instead of friend. I’ve always been cautious with the unqualified word “friend”. I refer to “net friends” or “work friends” or “someone I follow in Twitter”.

    We may not be “friends”. But we can be acquaintances. Just as we were before Twitter when we “knew” each other from blogs ad mailing lists. Just as I “knew my three penpals in elementary school and high school.

    I know my sister better through IM, Twitter, and her blog than I did when we were living in the same house!

    I’m confused when I read “Twitter forces you to follow anyone who you’ve allowed to follow you”. It doesn’t. It certainly hasn’t at any time since Sept 2007. Why do you think it does? (Dan – you don’t have to follow anyone you don’t want to follow and you can block anyone you don’t want following you.)

    I’m so sorry when I see people lock their Twitter streams. I guess if you’re tweeting Very Private Things but then… why are you using Twitter?


  1. […] know us? Will it ever end? Whitney Hess posted about the meaning of friend the other day on her blog, which she started thinking about after reading a post on Russ Unger’s blog.  She tries to […]

  2. […] The Meaning of Friend 04/23/2008 […]

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