A Friend Indeed – friendship in the digital era

friendsA blog written by an expatriate Italian living in Ireland, an Argentinian and a Brit, where could the inspiration for this blog post come from ?

We have dithered over writing about this for ages, the timing wasn’t right, we were busy, there were books to read, but now early into 2016 the time is right.  We are also reading Strong Signal by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell  which deals with a romantic on line relationship, so finally the stars seemed to have aligned.

Miki won’t be joining us for this one, as she’s just had a baby, and that’s keeping her even busier than usual – so love and hugs to her. So much love and so many hugs!

Karen: So I’m going to kick off and say that while i think that a friend is a friend, for me the route to friendship has been different , despite leaving home at 18, going to uni, travelling and living in West and EC London I now live 5 miles away from where I spent most of my teenage life and the majority of my (what is the word for non on line ? ) friends I have known for over 30 years. Others I have gathered from jobs, meeting outside the school gates and friends of friends it feels like how we became friends has been been a long and slow ride. I am also quite a shy person and reticent .

My on line friendships  in the main seem to have bypassed the slow part, perhaps that’s because we had a common interest that initially linked us, or because mainly communicating in writing condenses things- I’m not totally sure.

Fra: that’s right Karen: we have been thinking about this post for quite a while; in fairness the start of 2016 was like hell for me and I had to decompress from all the bad stuff before I could even think about blogging again and about a topic which is so very important to all of us.

First thing first – I don’t distinguish between “On Line Life” and “Real Life”, to me they are both pretty much life, I don’t front nor do I have an online persona – I am myself in all of my social interactions.

Friendship is one of the most important aspects of my life – to me the people I call my friends are part and parcel of the family I chose for myself.

Karen: would you say that for you the process, if you can call friendship such a thing, has been the same ?

Fra: Yes and no. I am an extrovert, I am at ease in large groups of people and tend to be sociable with everybody: however I can safely say that I have a few friends; these are the people I count as family and I am notoriously picky when it comes to bringing more people into my inner core.

When I started using social media it was specifically to reach out to friends in Italy whom I physically couldn’t be close to living in a different country – my facebook is pretty much still a very guarded place, that is my facebook friends are actually my friends, I know them all personally and I am not in it for collecting “friends”. On the other hand, for the past 3 years and especially since I started using twitter – and to a certain extent tumblr (which I don’t anymore because it is evil) – I have met so many incredible people who are now most definitely part of my inner core.

It is possible that the process was accelerated by being in the same community and also by the medium itself – reaching out to people in 140 characters does leave one trying to find the best possible way to connect to another person in a meaningful manner.

Because I have met some wonderful people on line, thoughts about how we interact with each other in the digital era have been predominant in my mind for quite some time now.

The question I ask myself often is: do I delude myself that my on line interactions are as genuine as the interactions I share with people,say, I meet in the pub or go out with? Do I take a construct of the digital era, the SM “friends” and turn it into something that is not or am I actually making friends? Are the people I am interacting with as genuine in their interactions with me as I am in mine with them?

I am very happy that up to now – with a couple of heartbreaking exceptions – that yes I have actually made friends through digital platforms. And I mean people whom I initially interacted with out of common interest – in our case books – have now become such a huge part of my (excuse the shakespearean botched reference) band of siblings that I cannot even think about not having them in my life.

In this context I guess my approach to online friendship is somewhat coloured by my age: I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in a person with thousands of twitter “followers” or facebook “friends” – especially in an era when you can buy said followers by the bucket load for a couple of dollars.

I am still pretty much driven by an infinite need to make human connections and to make such connections in a meaningful manner.

When I reach out is because I am actually interested in a person, I believe that we can share common interests and that we can build upon those to be part of the same whole.

I also accept that my approach might be flawed: I can see how for some people the number of “friends and followers” becomes a superficial projection of their perceived success across multiple platforms. I mean, I live by the saying “to have 1000s of online friends is like being rich at monopoly” but I can also understand how the 1000s of “friends” might become important to others.

Karen: I think that there are two issues there that I have thoughts on, one is about the definition of friendship again, the other is related to age.

If you asked my parents if they believed a person you met online could be a friend, the answer would be no. Friends are people you can see, touch and feel – even if they move to another country you physically knew them. My daughter’s generation sees absolutely no difference, they communicate across a myriad of platforms and countries.

I kind of sit, unsurprisingly, in the middle of those opinions.

I think where people get their knickers in a twist is about the meaning of the word friend. I was contacted a week or so ago by someone I know on Twitter, they asked me to participate in something because I was a friend of another person. I had to point out that tweeting to someone, or knowing them on other social media platforms does not make someone my friend.

That’s like saying someone who works or lives in the same building as you is your friend, just because you chat social pleasantries.

I think that we’re on the same page here in terms of what we think friendship is, and certainly what online friendship isn’t – but what does this mean going forward ? Or does it need to mean anything ? And I mean that mainly  in a wider sense

Fra: Yes, we are in agreement. When I meet new people – irrespective of where I meet them – there is always a certain progress and a certain process: I feel that maybe we share common interests, I feel we are attuned on the fundamental facts of life and I feel that hey I want to know more about you as a person and I want to give you my friendship in recognition that we are the same.Eck I want to bake you cookies and make you things and let you borrow my books. Being in a digital friendship poses a couple of challenges to this: first there are the people who by necessity cannot share a lot of personal info. At first I did find this so very challenging and yet it urged me into getting past my preconceived ideas – the a friend is somebody you can see, touch you were referring to earlier on- and in some cases brought me some of the most profound interactions I have had in a long time.

Secondly some of the people whom I consider friends now, live very far away from me, across multiple continents and no matter how much I want to meet them in person that is always going to be a challenge.

Karen: I was actually going to ask that question, do you feel that if someone uses a pseudonym, that you can ever be fully friends ? Is friendship defined by knowledge of name, DoB, hair colour ?  Or Is it as we touched on previously  a preconception, a generational thing ?,

Fra: I used to think so. In my case it is definitely an age and preconceived notion: I like you, I want to be your friend and therefore I want to know you as a whole including what you look like and what your name is and I want you to know all of that about me as well. Now I am not so sure anymore: there are some people whom I became real good friends with way before they decided to share a name or a face or any sort of anagraphical information with me. And in those cases where the sharing has occurred it feels like I have been given a treasure to safeguard and protect.tumblr_migm91qv2x1qiblwbo1_500.gif_blogpost1


Karen: I think my question was slightly loaded, as I certainly don’t believe that knowing facts about someone is a definition of friendship. Again, I agree with you that as you become closer to someone you instinctively want to know about them, and we’re trained to believe that this involves knowing facts. I think that the real person is defined my feeling and emotions and acts. The colour of the hair and what is done for a living – that’s window dressing. However while I do believe this, there is a part of me that is comforted by the physical knowledge of eye colour and height. So that when people do entrust you with it, it is a gift.0814_08311.png_blogpost3

Fra: nail right on the head there Karen. If friendship is the sharing of ideas and feelings and beliefs- like I believe it is -then we already know the “real” person without the constraints of knowing somebody’s hair or eye colour or what they do for a living. I guess that before the digital era these were part and parcel of knowing somebody.

Although I freely admit that once the foundations of friendship are laid I find it difficult to limit my interactions to 140 characters. In all cases where the friendships that I have made through SM have become a solid part of my daily life our communication has grown into lengthy emails, or moved to mediums that allow a more intimate and more articulate way of talking.

Karen; I do however feel that one of the downsides to communicating mainly in writing is the opportunity for communication to get blurred, I find myself at times typing and then stopping , hands flapping around to illustrate a point .Also while some of us excel in the written word, others can struggle to get their meaning across.

Fra: Yes, and I think this is where and how one moves forward – that is when the 140 characters start to feel constricting and you feel like you need to articulate more, then it’s the possibility of picking up the phone, or writing an email or a letter, or meet for a meal and go through topics at length that makes a huge difference in a relationship.

Because, irrespective of how deep and profound a relationship can grow across the ether there’s a whole lot to be said about hearing another person’s inflections or looking at their non verbal clues when discussing something important to you both.

Karen: For me, that would be the ideal – but whether its geographic or personal reasons it’s not always possible to meet or talk on the phone, I think that the key is to be aware that if you communicate only in writing then it’s just as likely, and sometimes more so, that you can be misunderstood. I’m not totally sure how you can get around this though, other than being aware of changes to behaviour, and asking questions. Although I worry that paranoia or over solicitousness may result.

Fra: Indeed Karen, indeed. I do think that it is easier to be misunderstood in writing than it is face to face and possibly that is one limitation of carrying on friendships in the digital era. And yet, I also have some really fulfilling conversations via email – where both parties really make an effort to understand each other and take time to consider each other’s perspective and point of view.

It has most certainly been a journey to find and cherish these friends I have made online; one that has challenged some of my preconceived notions on interactions and has granted me the privilege of getting to know some amazing people.

It is a journey I wouldn’t change for the world even with the inevitable heartbreak of some betrayals and epic letdowns. But as I move on to yet another new year all I can think of is the support I have gotten at a very hard time, or the unexpected phone calls that warmed my heart and all the emails and packages from far away places and of airplane tickets booked and dinners had and to be had and I think that yeah I haven’t made these friendships up, I haven’t deluded myself that these interactions are meaningful. My friendships are real and they are growing and I am all the richer for them.


It’s probably safe to say that if you’re reading this then you’ve embraced the digital age at least a little bit, what have your experiences been ?













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