A Conversation

At least some social media friends are real.

I’ve been thinking about friendship in recent days. I don’t think many of us have as many close relationships as we once did, but maybe I’m just extrapolating my experience to the whole world and maybe I’m falling into the “good old days” trap. Still, it seems that real-world relationships don’t have the depth they used to.

Moving more and deepening less

That may result from the mobility of our society. Until World War II, most people never traveled more than 25 to 50 miles from their home. When I grew up in rural West Tennessee, we went to Memphis (80 miles away) fewer than a dozen times. I meet more strangers in a week than my grandfather did in a lifetime. In earlier times, we were born with, went to school with, married, worked with, retired with, and were buried with pretty the same people for a lifetime.

Correlation is not causation. A lot of superficial relationships get blamed on social media, whereas I think it more likely that social media have simply arisen at the same time as our mobility, and that mobility is a greater factor.

Social media allows reconnecting

Increasing mobility predates social media, of course, and you could already see the pattern in the last generation. My parents’ generation began that trend as people moved to pursue jobs and careers, sped along by the fracturing effects of World War II and the subsequent rise of suburbia. Most of Mom and Dad’s friends left home for good jobs. Those who stayed raised children who went away to college and then took jobs away from “home,” myself among them.

Then along came social media, and a funny thing happened. People began to reconnect across the years.

I’m fortunate to have some good friends in real life, but there aren’t a lot of them, and the speed of life means we don’t get together too often. In fact, I have most interaction with my face-to-face friends via Facebook, even though I live fairly close to them.

Three groups of friends

In fact, I can identify three groups or types of friends I’m connected with on Facebook in particular.

  1. Professional connections make up a large portion of Facebook friends. In this group I include people I know through Toastmasters and the National Speakers Association, fellow academics, people I’ve met through Twitter (which tends almost exclusively to be people who share an interest in communication), and current and former students. Some of these folks have become close through frequent interaction. (In another post, we’ll consider what it means to say you’re “close” to someone.)
  2. Family and current real-life friends make up a significant but smaller proportion of Facebook friends. Some of these folks started as professional connections, and then moved into this category over time. Some of these folks feel very close, even though we’ve never met face-to-face. The Internet has made it possible for communities to form around shared interests and even shared challenges rather than mere geography. We have made quick but deep friendships in the disabilities community whom we would never have met without the Internet. I can only imagine the isolation such families must have felt in earlier times.
  3. Blasts from the past make up a surprisingly large portion. In past centuries, these are the people I would have stayed connected to for a lifetime because of having been born in the same town, the people with whom I would have mostly lost touch a generation ago, the people I did lose touch with until a couple of years ago. Some of these people I have not seen face-to-face nor talked with on the telephone for 40 years, and yet social media enable me to have short-but-focused conversations with some of them every day.

What does ‘real’ mean, anyway?

For comparison, consider this: without even trying, I can name two people we (my wife and I) connected with through a professional relationship (a social worker for Hannah, and a minister) who, we thought, had moved beyond that into genuine friendship. But when one retired and the other one was no longer serving Hannah, they both dropped all contact. We’ve never heard from either again, once that threshold was crossed. By contrast, some of those blasts from the past (and professional connection folks too) have stuck with us through difficulties, sending support in various ways, and going out of their way to help in our frequent times of need.

Some of these people I have never laid eyes on.

You tell me: where does the depth lie?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter the medium through which you connect. What matters is connection. And during these holiday times, I am increasingly grateful for those connections, whatever their source.

How do you find friendship changing in the Internet age?

Photo by Flickr user khalid Albaih

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