What's the Difference Between Offline Friends and Online "Friends"?

This week’s Food for Thought:

What’s the difference between offline friends and online “friends”?

(If you answered that online friends are ones you made online, you get 10 Smartass points. Proceed directly to the university nearest you and sign up as a philosophy major with said points.)

Sure, it’s a Web1.0 type of question, but I think in the digital world we live in, it’s become an even more pressing question. We now have so many ways to connect with people we’ve never physically met, and our connectedness gets tighter and tighter every day.

Yet many people think there’s still some qualitative difference between the types of friendships such that offline friends get the status of true friends and online ones are “friends,” with the quotation signifying something like people we’ve met online, talked to, and like – but not to be confused with friends sans quotations.

Here’s the deal, though: through blogging, I’ve met more people that I actually like than I generally do in the real world. It’s also much easier for me to get to know people online than off – you don’t have to worry with sometimes-inhibiting social factors like gender, status, and race.

But there’s also the weird feature with online “friends” that I know more about them and less about them at the same time. I can tell you how old their kids are, what their kids like, what their favorite type of music is, what they’re most scared of, and all sorts of very personal facts – yet I don’t know what they’re kids’ names are or whether the name they use is actually their real one.

It’s strange, really – we expose more of our inner selves through online relationships at the same time that we hide more of outer selves.

I find this interesting because it’s the exact opposite of what we do in offline relationships.

I was reading an offline friend’s Facebook page the other day and he mentioned some things that he liked and disliked. I’ve known this guy for thirteen years and I didn’t know some of the stuff – and it was pretty basic stuff that should’ve come up in the course of our friendship. That happens to me quite often, and I don’t spend much time crawling around on Facebook and Myspace.

Something else to consider for those with blogging “friends”: consider how much time per week we spend reading each other’s writing. Sure, a lot of the stuff can be very impersonal – my blog being no different – but in some ways those are conversations that we are a part of sometimes on a daily basis. I don’t talk to my offline friends on a daily, or sometimes weekly, basis – yet I leave comments and shoot emails to my online friends everyday.

I should note that one of the things that makes blogging “friends” so nice is that they are dealing with the same issues and you don’t have to introduce them to the blogosphere at the same time you’re talking about something you’re thinking about. They get it because they’re doing it – so you can get down to the meat of the conversation without trying to explain what RSS is so that they understand why RSS subscribers matter.

My point: many of us are spending more time and attention on our online “friends” than our offline friends. From one perspective, that would seem to make their friendship more important to us than offline friendships.

Yet, at the same time, most of us place more weight on the offline friendships, and they still remain friends sans quotations.

For many of us, this issue is not merely an academic point any more. The online world is a critical part of our reality – and part of that reality has a very social component. Our lives are enriched by people we have never, and likely will never, physically meet – yet they still get second-class status as far as the type of relationship we have with them goes.

Is it time to drop the quotations? Is it time to stop the favoring of physical friendships over the non-physical ones?

(The worry here, of course, is that the people reading this blog have a much higher likelihood of saying “Yes” because they are already on the blogosphere. But consider what the answer would be if you were answering someone who wasn’t already part of the choir.)

Photo Credit: Rainfalls

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  1. says

    The English language hasn’t caught up with this new type of relationship. I think the main difference is that offline friendships necessarily have higher potential intimacy (nonverbal cues, vocal inflections), whereas the online community as a higher potential for meeting people with whom we have more respect and approval. That’s not surprising, since it’s easier to find people with like values online (comments shared on the same sites, offline friends of friends on Facebook, etc.).

    But considering that marriages and other facetime relationships have emerged from online beginnings, I think keeping the quotes around friends online is just being pedantic more than making a profound distinction, especially in an era where most of our communication with offline friends consists of prosthetics like cell phones, email and IM. Not much different.

    Andre Kibbes last blog post..Keep a Full System and an Empty Head

  2. says

    There is no difference in my mind.

    Offline friend = physical proximity + mental proximity
    Online friend = mental proximity

    As you say, us bloggers know this already, I don’t even attempt to explain this to offliners.

    @ Andre: Good point, the migrating offline friends to online and vice versa.
    (both need to be online at some point though)

    MonkMojos last blog post..Observations of a Bus Driver: E Book Trilogy Preview

  3. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Andre: I’m with you that it’s more pedantic than anything – until you talk to people less, say, enlightened about the matter. To them, it’s not at all pedantic.

    Your comment about the English language not catching up is interesting to me in a very oblique way to the conversation at hand. For instance, the Greeks had at least four different words for “love” that referenced different types of relationships – yet they didn’t make it into the hybrid English we now have. Something else to think about: if we were spinning around semantics, which I’m prone to do, it would be interesting but perhaps not insightful. But we’re dealing with the concept – friendship – irregardless of the word we use to reference it. If we need to give online friendships another name, is it out of convenience, or because there’s something uniquely different about them that warrants the different name. Consider: horses and donkeys – very similar, but importantly different.

    On other matters, I don’t know how long you’ve been lurking, but I’m really glad that you commented since it helped me discover your blog. I’ve checked out your blog – great work over there and you’ll be seeing more of me there.

    @ MoMo: I guess at the moment I’m questioning whether physical proximity is essentially an addition to the relationship. I think it’s the intimacy (the Greek

  4. says

    I’m likely going outside of the scope of what your post is offering up, but outside of wanting to get down someone’s pants or other such physical endeavor, I’d venture to say there is a negative aspect to physical proximity for every positive.

    Toss in internet audio and video, and that leaves taste, touch, and smell. Three things I personally have no desire to do to my friends.

    MonkMojos last blog post..Observations of a Bus Driver: E Book Trilogy Preview

  5. says

    Most of my current friends are “online friends” if we’re talking numbers. But the people I actually connect with – that all happens offline. I love the people I meet and connect with other ways, but nothing is as significant as spending time in another person’s presence for me.

    Mays last blog post..Back Talk

  6. Charles Gilkey says

    @ MoMo: I mostly agree with you – especially when one talks about the logistics of physical time. Where do we meet? What do we eat? How long do we stay there? Trifles…

    @ May: I’m wondering whether there’s some type of gender bias to this question. Many of the males I’ve talked to share the same feeling as MoMo – yet most females share yours. Of course, there’s some social indoctrination that lends females to be both more social and more physically intimate with both sexes than males are..but it’s an interesting thought, nonetheless.

    I’m wondering what the other females readers think. Perhaps time for a poll?

  7. says

    I’m going to go ahead and comment despite the shocking amount of medication in my system. (Illegal in 48 states? More on this tonight at 11.)

    I make no distinction between online real friends and offline real friends. Where I get frustrated is social media “friends”. Or “buddies”. Or “fans”. Or whatever proprietary term this service or that service has put in place. Those are not friends. They are people who use the same social network as you do and who have similar interests. That’s like saying that I like yoga and so does the chick in front of me in line at the grocery store. Are we grocery store “friends” now?

    But the people with whom I share real and honest emails, the people who Tweet me to say they heard I was having a bad day, the people who come to leave heartbreakingly honest comments on my blog? Actual friends, no quotes needed.

    Naomi Dunfords last blog post..Social Media Marketing Sucks, or Your License To Print Money

  8. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Naomi: The point about the chick in the grocery store is a good one. I’m not afraid of MacHeads because I like Macs – although our fanaticism about Macs may be a good point from which a friendship could emerge.

    But I’m with you: those people who can reach through to the core of me and share their life and stories with me – well, drop the quotes. The medium of friendship is not as important as the essence of friendship.

  9. says

    Real friends are real people we make real connections with, wherever we meet them. It’s interesting though, how we know different stuff about friends depending on whether they are online or offline friends, I hadn’t thought about that.

    I agree with Naomi when it comes to social media “friends” … friendships take time to build, they aren’t created by clicking a request button!

    “The medium of friendship is not as important as the essence of friendship.” This quote pretty much sums it up … brilliant!

    Lovely, thought-provoking post, Charles, thank you! And thank you @Naomi for the link on Twitter!


    Diannes last blog post..Lessons From the Garden

  10. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Diane: Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Interesting, my best friend added me to Facebook, and I learned something new about him, too. I loved the “Lessons From the Garden” post – it was rather beautiful.

  11. says

    Interesting but life isn’t that binary. A change in location will turn offline friends into online friends. I commmunicate online frequently with my best offline friends.

  12. Charlie says

    @ George: I think the difference is the origin of the friendship. If there were any significant difference between the two, that is.

  13. says

    OMG we both wrote about the very same thing and asked the very same question!

    “Is it time to drop the quotations? Is it time to stop the favoring of physical friendships over the non-physical ones?”

    I didn’t read this post of yours prior to writing mine. I swear! You believe me, right? RIGHT?? I would have linked to you if I did.

    Funny that we both wrote about the same subject, from different angles. Or maybe not so funny, since we obviously share similar interests and thoughts.

    Vereds last blog post..The Blurry Line Between Online and Real-Life Relationships

  14. amichetti says

    Thought I’d let you know that I used your quote in an image here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/canadianaeh/7266198782/in/photostream/ and here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/canadianaeh/7266198542/in/photostream/

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