on life, ambitions, and dreams

The Value of Online Friendships and IRL

bff, by eflon

Two years ago at SXSW I met two people in real life for the first time. After meeting each other, we didn’t have that awkward “getting to know you” phase, instead we were chained to the hip debriefing about sessions and mapping out how each of us were going to make our impact in the world. When we’d meet new people and they asked how we met, we’d answer simultaneously, “On Twitter!”

“You mean you didn’t just meet here?”

Well, sorta. You see, the three of us had been talking for two years online and SXSW happened to be the first time that we were all in the same physical room together.

We joked that we were “IRL-ing,” which is the active verb of spending time “in real life” together as opposed to online. And it was fun, too.

Think about the closest friends that you have, the ones that you can share anything with. Now think about how long it took you to get to that point of comfort with your friend. Years, probably.

Friends vs. Friendship

Yesterday, Monica Guzman wrote about the term “friends” and how in the age of social media, are all of the “friends” that we have online actually friends, or just people we know who we call friends?

She writes about the difference between friends and the role of friendship:

How many people can I turn to in a crisis? A small group of family and close friends I’d think to reach out to — if I keep the trouble offline.

But if I take it online, if I decide that’s all right, it’s all of them plus an unpredictable number of other friends, acquaintances, professional contacts and even strangers who might help, maybe more quickly or more effectively than the people I know and see the most.

These tech-connected “friends” won’t ever replace the flesh-and-blood people with whom we form deep, enduring relationships. But they can act the part a time or two, and even audition for a permanent role….

So are people friends if they act like friends for a moment here, an hour there? Can we draw clean lines between our networks and our friends once and for all?

No, we can’t, and maybe we shouldn’t. Because when we’re so connected, the prevalence of friends doesn’t matter nearly as much as the prevalence of friendship.

The question about if a person is really a friend or not is something that we’ve all wondered for years (just ask any heart-broken teenager). But are the conversations and relationships we have and build online real or not?

Stop Valuing IRL Over Your Online Life

My friend Mouyyad of IRL-ing fame sent me this video of Alexandra Samuel’s talk at TEDxVictoria in which she gives Ten Reasons to Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life (video embedded below). She says:

We are so used to apologizing for our online reality that we actually have an acronym for it: I. R. L., in real life. And you see people all over the Internet itself using this acronym to say, ‘What I’m doing right now online does not count. It’s not real. Reality happens elsewhere.

Wait, so that conversation that I had with someone last week on Twitter that turned into a freelance project wasn’t real? And the person who I met two years ago online who’s turned into one of my closest most trusted friends, isn’t real?

Alexandra’s talk is centered on the idea of “Real Life Too,” a new acronym to embrace and properly recognize all those activities that we do online as being real.

That anonymous person who left a hateful comment on your blog? They’re real. That blogger you’ve been connecting with who lives on the other side of the world? They’re real. That person who lives in your same city who you’ve tweeted with at events but have never shook hands? They’re real, too.

Alexandra Samuel: Ten Reasons to Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life at TEDxVictoria

I still love the term “IRL” because to the friends who I have IRL-ed with, it’s a joke. After building up trust and being our real selves with each other online for years, we were able to skip the awkwardness that comes with meeting people for the first time and jump right into being “friends.” We know that where our friendship started, online, is as real as what happens offline.

I think about all of the “friends” I have on Facebook and how many of them I’m actually friends with, care about, or are just “friends” with because I’m curious to watch what they do in their life. All of that is real, and just because the interactions that we have with each other happen online doesn’t make it any less real.

What do you think, is online life as real as offline life?

Photo by eflon

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12 Responses

  1. Great post, Laura. I love this concept, but I will say that not everyone has the same seamlessness between online and “IRL”. Sadly, it’s often because they weren’t “real” in their online life, so when they do encounter someone in person they aren’t who they pretended to be in online interactions. For them, there really is a big difference between their online life and their offline life. I feel sorry for them.

    For people like you and I, who are genuine about who we are regardless of how we’re interacting with someone, the transition can and usually is pretty seamless.

    1. Thank you, Pat.

      Alexandra’s talk mentions about how some people are more “real” online than they are offline. Or they feel more comfortable talking about certain topics online than they do offline. There have been some things that I’m more comfortable talking about online than I am offline, and visa versa. But overall, who I am online is who I am offline. 

      I’m fascinated with the idea of having multiple personalities and personas, or people who are intentionally different online and offline, because I’m curious as to why. Though, as you mentioned, I think most people who act differently online and offline may not be aware of it…

  2. Yes, online life is as real as offline life.

    Like Pat said, you must remain real no matter what the environment. People can tell really fast if you’re being fake or not! 

    Nice write up. 🙂

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post Laura  Yes online friends are real. However, we are still sense deprived when we meet people online. While we maybe able to see and listen to them, we still can’t touch, taste or smell them. I love the opportunities online brings with it.  However, a person’s reality consists of what he/she takes in via the 5 (or even 6 senses) not only 2. (Of course, combined with the filters he or she applies based on his / her past) In that sense, an online experience must be incomplete. I have felt that way quite a few times when I got to know people in RL whom I had previously gotten to know online. I just feel it is somehow a pity that we sit in a cafes being so busy with a smartphone or tablet while around us are “humanoids” we could experience with 5 senses 😉

    1. I never thought about how important the other senses are when it comes to meeting a person and getting to know them. I have met a few people in person (or via video or phone over Skype) and their voices didn’t match up to the voice that I created for them inside my head. 

      Part of the allure of meeting people online and communicating with them via text only is it’s like reading a book—everyone is a character and you, the reader, can make up the voice and the other senses that make that character 3D. But when you meet them completely in real life, they may or may not match up with the character you’ve created them to be. Interesting to think about.

  4. I guess I had just never thought about this. I will say that I’ve had wonderful conversations on Twitter, and I supposed I would consider those real.

    Twitter took away the awkwardness that would be inherent of starting up/jumping into a conversation with people you didn’t know in person.

    1. One of my favorite things about Twitter is being able to meet new people and jump into conversations that other people are having together (it is public afterall!). And because of that I’ve discovered things about my friends that I never knew about, and it’s all due to a form of ‘eavesdropping.’ 🙂

  5. I guess I had just never thought about this. I will say that I’ve had wonderful conversations on Twitter, and I supposed I would consider those real.

    Twitter took away the awkwardness that would be inherent of starting up/jumping into a conversation with people you didn’t know in person.

    1. One of my favorite things about Twitter is being able to meet new people and jump into conversations that other people are having together (it is public afterall!). And because of that I’ve discovered things about my friends that I never knew about, and it’s all due to a form of ‘eavesdropping.’ 🙂

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