Recently I had lunch with a friend I met on Twitter. And yes, we really are friends. We happen to have met on Twitter but we are now friends in real life. We connected through Twitter, met a few times at events and became friends. It doesn’t happen often for me but it does happen.
Mostly I am on Twitter to join the conversation, get access to some amazing people and network with professionals in social media. Sometimes you connect with someone and a friendship begins and Twitter will be credited as the one that introduced you. But mostly this online connection will stay just a fun and friendly way to connect with a whole bunch of cool people.
What concerns me as of late is I see people confusing their online friends with having friends in real life. Social media can facilitate real life friendships but the truth is that you can not truly be friends with someone from the other side of a screen writing in 140 character bursts. It is simply not the same.
Some people are going to argue but I know this is true. I see people making this mistake and confusing the two all the time. I see people who are lonely in their personal lives or feeling lost or craving relationships making their way online to find them. It is easier and the risks seem low. You feel that you can avoid rejection or put yourself “out there” more easily or that you are more in control. You can create a persona or connect with others and put your best face forward. The problem is, real friendships are based on a “warts and all” sort of deal. In social media you only know what the person choses to put out there. When you are just a blip out of thousands of blips in a person’s day it is hard to do more than skim the surface of their lives.
A friend of mine told me about someone with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter who told her that he received thousands of Birthday wishes on his special day. They kept coming in, one after another, tweeted and retweeted all day long. But no matter how many Birthday tweets he got he still sat at home alone with no one to celebrate with. Where were all his “friends” now?
I had a Twitter friend for more than a year. We connected on occasion. I laughed at her jokes, admired her wisdom and respected her professionally. She was one I followed a bit more closely online because I felt a connection with her. We had never met in real life but through her comments and insights I felt I knew her.
I was wrong. Very, very wrong. I was floored to find out that my Twitter pal was in deep trouble. She was struggling with alcoholism and her life was falling apart. Her light hearted tone and witty insights, her sweet posts about her kids and her loving marriage all manufactured to cover up for a family long gone and years of failed attempts at sobriety and treatment.
I learned this because another online friend received an email from this woman’s sister begging her to help get her sister offline and into treatment. She felt that her relationships online were what was keeping her in denial. She was living in a dream world. Within 24hrs of this email her profile was removed from Twitter and we never heard from or about her again. We would have had no idea how to reach her anyway. She had been a part of our Twitter world for a while yet, after a few days, people stopped asking where she went.
Of course, this is an extreme situation and most of us don’t have secrets like this but it does illustrate my point. I really do believe that wonderful friendships can start on social media but, until you meet someone in real life and build a real relationship with them and get to know them in their real world, you simply can’t know them.
There is also the issue of expectations. Many people go online to find something they don’t have in real life. On Twitter especially I have seen some desperate people. I have seen deep sadness and loneliness online. I have seen people comforted through community and others who take every “unfollow” as a rejection of themselves. I have received messages from people angry at feeling left out from some event or hurt that they were not included in a lunch. People who depend on these online relationships as if they were real life friendships. But they are not.
I am on Twitter to connect, mostly professionally, but on occasion I have the good fortune of making a new friend. However, if I depended on my online world to be my only world I can’t imagine how lonely and empty I would feel.
What about you? Do you agree that online friends aren’t the same as real life friends?