The other day, I was very interested to read an article by Rosie Millard It’s difficult to admit, but some friends see you as an acquaintance – and vice versa in which she wrote about the value of friendships and how she felt that real-world relationships were more worthy than digital encounters. Initially I found myself agreeing with her but then I got to thinking: surely all of our relationships are based, to some extent or another, upon illusions: those which we present to others and those which are presented to us. We each of us wear different masks in different areas of our lives and so there is no reason to suppose that an online friendship is necessarily any less valid than a real-world one. Indeed, a great many of my own real-world relationships have been based upon little more than coincidence of location and impulse (which can be an agonisingly painful lesson to learn, I can tell you).
On the other hand, there are a number of people who I know online-only who I would most certainly class as being real friends because we have formed a solid bond of pure intellect – which actually makes for quite a strong relationship, in my opinion. I also have a number of disabled friends online for whom the web provides not only a portal to genuine friendships but also a vital link to the outside world. This is another of the many ways that the internet gives us windows into lives that we might otherwise never encounter. I certainly feel a fuller and more rounded person for it, although perhaps that’s just my age…
It is, I believe, crucial that we do not dismiss relationships founded in cyberspace as being of no worth just because they have no physical aspect; in truth, they may be deeper simply because it can often be easier to be intimate with people who you will never encounter in the physical world, precisely because of that very fact. (Quite apart from which, in the realm of romantic endeavours – which I am not discussing here – it may very well also serve to remove the near-certainty of disappointment. Catfishing has its own value too, you see; at least so long as it doesn’t spill into an extravagant real-world deceit à la Gayle Newland). The web, where we effectively unleash our naked thoughts into the ether, might even be considered to be a parallel existence of pure mind and emotion, almost akin to a vision of the after-life: a kind of a virtual heaven, if you will, where we are free to express ourselves without pretence or corporeal limitation.
As an aside, online is also a great way to re-establish friendships with people who we’ve lost track of over the years. I actually have more friends now from when I was at school than I had when I was at school.
Of course, online friendships are very much subject to a degree of interpretation, insofar as that you can never be entirely sure how much of what you like or dislike about someone lies in the expanse between the intent behind their words and your interpretation of them. Further, this artificial distance makes it all too easy to end up arguing with someone with whom you actually agree or vice versa. You might think drunken cross-purposed conversations in a pub are difficult but that’s small-fry compared to hammered conversations on a keyboard.
In truth, our perceptions of our internet friends may very likely be contrived out of our own fears and our hopes for what other people are. Analogue mates can be more inconvenient and less mistakable but that doesn’t make digital pals any less vital. An online friend should be seen not as an instead-of but as an as-well-as. Sure, it’s true that a great many of our online friendships may be little more than acquaintances, but I think we are entering into a new age which will require our various forms of relationships with others to take new definitions and adopt whole new frames of reference.