Can Someone You’ve Never Met Really Be Your Friend?
I felt embarrassed the first time I left a comment on a blog site and referred to the site owner as a friend. However, in time, I started to believe in the concept of virtual friendship, which is defined as “a friendship that exists mostly through text and social media as opposed to direct human contact.” After all, what else could explain the anticipation I felt when reading posts or comments from specific people? What other reason could there be for feeling both in sync and understood?
Still, I’ve made no secret of my dislike of most social media. I’m scornful of the whole idea of ‘friending’ on Facebook. Friends are essential to a good and happy life. I don’t like it when the term is stretched beyond all reason.
So, if I’m going to proclaim that several people that I’ve never met in real life have become friends, I want to understand what virtual friendship is all about. To do that, we have to start way back with Aristotle and the meaning of friendship.
What is Friendship?
Aristotle wrote that three conditions need to be met in order to refer to someone as a friend.
- Both or all parties need to recognize it as a friendship.
- The friends spend time together, mostly engaged in the contemplation of timeless truths. (Let’s modernize that one by saying that friends are willing to go deep, talking about a wide range of important topics, some of which may show them in a bad light.)
- Friends feel admiration and love for each other based on information about the whole of the other person, not just the positives.
So Does Virtual Friendship Qualify?
Using Aristotle’s definition, two modern-day philosophers argued that virtual friendship does not qualify as genuine friendship. Considering each of the three conditions in turn, their position is that:
- Friendships can certainly be recognized virtually. No problem there.
- It is possible for virtual friends to talk about important issues online, but not as likely. When we write posts, we are choosing what we wish to discuss. When spending time with a friend in real life, we are more likely to face a wider range of situations so there’s less opportunity to censor what we disclose about ourselves.
- The self-censoring issue looms largest for this condition. It is not that we are pretending to be someone we are not. Rather, the issue is that we can each choose ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘for how long’ we are in touch online, which means that our friends receive limited information about us.
On the other side of the argument, there are several posts, usually by young people, unaware or dismissive of Aristotle’s definition of friendship. They seem to define friendship much as one Supreme Court justice defined pornography – “I’ll know it when I see it.” These authors claim that the distinction between real life and virtual friends is only valid if you’re old enough to erroneously still believe in the digital divide.
For a delightful argument in favour of virtual friendship, please see Cathi’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.
What Do We Know When We Know Our Friend?
Aristotle’s definition feels a bit too philosophical and removed. The claim of “I’ll know it when I see it” feels too vague. So I went looking for more, and I found Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology.
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’C.S. Lewis
McAdams does research into personality. He argues that getting to know someone requires working through three levels of intimacy. They are:
- Broad Descriptive Traits: These are the kinds of terms we find in personal ads. In blogs that I follow, some of the common traits of the authors include: humorous, intelligent, creative, friendly, and inquisitive.
- Personal Concerns: These are the contextual details that are missing from the traits. Personal concerns include: roles (i.e., writer, daughter, mother, wife); goals (i.e., to read more, understand self, improve physical fitness); skills (i.e., writes well, tells good stories, takes great photos), and values (i.e., seeks adventure; loves beauty; appreciates creativity).
- Identity: McAdams likens identity to an entire photo album as opposed to a single snapshot. He defines it as “an inner story of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future to provide a life with unity, purpose, and meaning.”
What Are the Takeaways for Virtual Friendship?
We’ll each need to decide for ourselves if virtual friendship qualifies as ‘real’ friendship. If we choose to believe that it does, there are things we can do to deepen and strengthen our online relationships.
First, we need to recognize that getting to know someone isn’t simply a matter of knowing more about the person. Being able to list ten traits instead of five won’t do. Instead, we need access to different kinds of information before we can claim a virtual friendship, or a real-life one.
To Move from Level 1 to 2, Use Questions
Psychologist Arthur Aron developed something he called the “Sharing Game.” It’s a set of 36 questions that both participants answer before moving on to the next question. The questions escalate self-disclosure gradually. For example, question 1 is “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” Question 35 is “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?” (The full set of Aron’s questions is available here.)
I didn’t know anything about this research before now, but the Tribe Stories section of this Profound Journey site is built on the idea of self-disclosure through questions asked and answered. If you’re interested in sharing with the rest of the Profound Journey tribe, or even if you just want some questions for self-reflection, I encourage you to take a look at any or all of :
- 25 Not-Too-Scary Life Questions Worth Asking Yourself
- 25 Slightly Scary Deep Questions Worth Asking Yourself
- today’s other post, 25 Totally Terrifying Meaning of Life Questions Worth Asking
To Move from Level 2 to 3, Use Themes
Several posts on the same topic can begin to give us the photo album rather than the snapshot. An example from Profound Journey would be five posts written about my Mexican rescue dog, Shylah:
- Welcome Home, Shylah! 48 Hours with my Rescue Dog
- Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Shylah’s First Month at Home
- Connecting with Shylah: Working on the Dog-Human Bond
- Welcome Home, Shylah! Let’s Try This Again
- Two Dogs are Twice as Much Fun
Rereading those posts in order, I realize that I unintentionally told you as much about me as I did about Shylah. I also find it interesting that the last time I wrote about Shylah was seven months ago. This seems to be further evidence of the fact that self-censoring can be a significant problem for a virtual friendship! I’ll correct that oversight soon.
Do you believe that a virtual friendship is a real friendship?