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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

On Internet Friends and In-Person Friends, Or As They Are More Commonly Known, “Friends”


A couple weeks ago, I spent an afternoon chatting with an old friend on Skype. Back in the day, she and I were steady companions. We even shared an apartment for a year and a half. As we talked, we worked out how long it had been since we last caught up (December, at the earliest). The names of a few other friends came up, people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. The lack of contact was understandable. I had moved away. Things change. People grow apart. It happens.

“It’s just so hard to find time to catch up,” my friend said. We both nodded, with sad shrugs and “what can you do” expressions. That’s life, right? But as we sat there in mutual agreement, something started to bug me. I have another set of friends, every bit as dear, that I keep in touch with often. Daily. Constantly. The difference is, those people don’t live far away. They live on the internet.

Like everyone who has friends online, my hackles go up when I hear folks using the term “internet friends” in a way that implies that they are lesser. Friends are friends, no matter how you make them. We stick together through marriage and death and break-ups and babies and lay-offs and new apartments and everything in between. If someone goes quiet for a few days, we check in to see if they’re okay. I send Christmas cards to some of my internet friends. I’ve gotten jobs through internet friends.

Those of us of the shy and geeky persuasion are well familiar with the added bonuses of making friends through games or fandom. You cut straight to the front of the introductory line, establishing a common ground and building up from there. Games in particular offer one hell of an icebreaker — get a bunch of strangers, all hailing from different locations and beliefs and upbringings, and make them work together toward a shared goal. The hit-or-miss behavior in pick-up groups isn’t the best for fostering new friendships, but the more controlled atmosphere of a guild can lend itself to some seriously diverse discussions. Conversations about big stuff — politics, society, religion — typically don’t come out until well after a sense of camaraderie is established. It’s hard to demonize someone over an ideological difference when you’ve already discovered that s/he is pretty cool to hang out with. Worst case, you may not like each other, but you can still set it aside when it comes time to play. Such things can happen out in the real world, sure, but I can’t think of an environment in which it happens quite as naturally.

There are downsides, of course. We all know them. The tedium of explaining the expression on your face, or the scene going on in your living room. The clumsiness of getting sarcasm across in a written message. The inadequacy of trying to find the right words to comfort someone when all you want to do is give them a hug.

Though the meaningfulness of my internet friendships has never been in doubt, there is a difference in behavior I hadn’t considered until that comment my friend made on Skype, the comment about not having enough time to keep in touch. The long-absent friends we mentioned weren’t folks we’d ever been in the habit of writing to or chatting with. They were people we’d seen every week, face to face, until we stopped sharing a common territory. My internet friends, on the other hand, never leave our common territory. It goes with us wherever we go. We’re used to communicating through writing, quickly and often. This is especially true for friends made in game, where alliances are forged in frantic chat channels, full of overlap and shorthand. These can eventually evolve into things of greater substance, but their roots will always be in a place of fast, constant chatter. No small talk. No segues. Just steady streams of ideas. I’m thinking now of two of my closest friends, both of them former WoW guildies. Our email threads actually bear some resemblance to how conversations unfold in game. We’re using big words and full sentences, but there’s nothing linear about it. Multiple threads of thought run in tandem, dashing back and forth from family news to game strategy to that day’s internet drama, interjecting new thoughts while the others are still saying their piece. I’m not sure a conversation like that would hold up between me and my in-person friends. We might bounce between topics, but our conversations are more focused, and rely on a different breed of etiquette. They’re born in coffee shops, not 10-man instances.

There’s a middle ground as well, present in friends I made out in the real world and game with. I chat and email much more with these folks, but still less than I do with people I know exclusively through the internet. It’s easier for me to throw myself into a chat channel — even voice chat — with internet friends than it is with those I’m used to looking in the eye. It’s fun, but it’s not the sort of conversation I’m accustomed to having with them. They’re meant to fill a different niche.

The flip side is the surreal moment that commonly happens when you meet an internet friend offline. At first, they feel like a stranger. That feeling may pass quickly, but it’s there nonetheless, even though that person knows everything about you, even though you talk to them every day, even though the two of you are the best healer-tank duo the world has ever seen. Suddenly, the social rules have changed. You can’t take the time to write and edit your words carefully. You can’t respond with an all-caps expletive and an animated GIF. It’s every bit as alien as it is to email with someone you’ve only ever spoken to in person.

I’ve read many things discussing — usually with concern — how the internet is changing the way we socialize. There’s this perception that the internet is making us lonelier, or cheapening our friendships. I don’t think we have to worry about that. People who want face time are always going to seek it out, and those who have difficulty making friends in the real world can have an easier time of it online. As for me, I reside somewhere in the middle. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to avoid empty chitchat, as it affords me more time to talk about spaceships. I equally love being able to see someone’s face when they laugh, or to explore a new place with a companion. The value of our friendships isn’t changing; the way we conduct them is expanding. I don’t know where that will lead us, but given the new people and ideas I’ve encountered as a result, I’m all for it. And if nothing else, I’ll be in good company.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter as @beckysaysrawr.

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  • Seth Brodbeck

    I agree that we shouldn’t treat online friends as somehow lesser than friends that are met face to face. That said, I think friends who you interact with in person (due to geographic proximity), have an opportunity to develop a different sort of closeness. After all, I can’t call on (or be called on by) my guildmates when my car’s dead and I need a jump, or I’m moving to a new apartment and need a hand carrying furniture.

    (Also, I’m still looking for a way to play tabletop RPGs that feels as good as gathering around a table).

  • http://zadl.org/ Captain ZADL

    I always refer to the friends I meet in person as “meat friends.”

  • http://zadl.org/ Captain ZADL

    I recently had to move to a new city, and leave a gaming group that I’d been with for the better part of 10 years. I still attend their games via an iPad and FaceTime. It’s not quite as good as being there, but it is much better than abandoning them and the game.

  • Seth Brodbeck

    I’ve been using Google Hangouts with a group of friends online. It works pretty well until somebody starts lagging and ends up a minute behind.

  • Anonymous

    One my “real life” friends move to Oakland 2 years ago. I live in Montreal. a few years back, it would’ve meant that I basically lost a friend. Today, it means I can talk to him almost as often as before through Facebook, e-mails and XBox live.
    Thank you Internet, really!

  • Melynda

    Some of my best friends I’ve made through the internet. I have more in common with my “bff” who I only known from the internet than I do with my oldest friend from high school. Proximity doesn’t mean anything anymore.

  • Victoria Ramirez

    this was such a great read, and you brought up things i often think about. the people i’ve met through my fandoms can find the time to talk to me everyday, and a lot of them have very busy schedules or a lot to deal with, yet still can manage to communicate with me. but the people nearest me, can’t seem to find five minutes to spare to catch up, or spend an off day with me for a few hours.

  • Nat

    As someone who always struggled to find friends with common interests in ‘the real world’ all my friends are on the internet. It just doesn’t help when I’m in my room, alone and staring at my tumblr dash and wanting to just get out of the house to take my mind off things that I realize I don’t have anyone to actually do that with. And sure I can go out on my own but then I feel guilty for leaving because there are plenty of people online to talk to.

    I’d love to get into tabletop gaming again but I don’t have a buddy to go with me to a game (in addition to horror stories of N00b hazing and shunning that you hear about everywhere). It goes hand in hand with joining a group you see advertised. I’m terrified to go alone.

    blah.

  • http://www.angelahighland.com/ Angela Korra’ti (Highland)

    Oh, what a wonderful article. I’m a raging introvert in person, but I’m a lot perkier and more outgoing online, and I find it a lot easier to make friends with people if I know going in that we have common interests. I’ve picked up quite a few good friends via my music, MUSHing, and fanfic-club fandoms. Some of them have been via face to face interaction, but a LOT of them have been online–and the online friends often become face to face friends as well.

  • Jay, King of Gay

    slightly off-topic-ish. It was just yesterday that one of my friends was lamenting the men on a certain dating website to only have selfie pictures. One of her pals popped in with something derogatory about online dating. Well, I couldn’t help but gentley point out that I met my husband online, and that I know several couples who met the same way. In all 3 examples, btw, none of us would have met our spouse any other way because of geography and so forth. I’m just amazed at this day and age that people still have all this stigma about meeting anyone online.

  • Charlie

    My best friend is an internet friend ha! Mostly because I suffer from chronic pain. He’s always been there for me. He’s the Spock to my Kirk <3

  • Julie

    Oh man, all of this is perfect and almost exactly my own experience with online vs. offline friends — I get really awfully defensive about people slamming online friendships, because in my experience they’re almost more intimate & communicative, and they know far more about me thanks to that constant daily interaction. Of course, the comparison is that with RL friends, you see them often enough that possibly you get all of your communication in more in-depth bursts… but still, that falls apart with all the former friends that I’ve moved away from and am not in touch with. Those could theoretically have transitioned into online-only friendships, daily chatter and all — but they didn’t.

    The only thing I disagree with is this: “The flip side is the surreal moment that commonly happens when you meet an internet friend offline. At first, they feel like a stranger. That feeling may pass quickly, but it’s there nonetheless, even though that person knows everything about you, even though you talk to them every day, even though the two of you are the best healer-tank duo the world has ever seen.”
    Almost all of the people I’ve met offline, it’s transitioned extremely easily. If we chatter every day online, we’re pretty much guaranteed to have those same gushing conversations in-person.

  • Alex

    spouse and i met through livejournal! half the people at our very cheery wedding were internet friends, and a few of them we’d never met before. it was, according to a few people, us included, the BEST WEDDING EVER.

  • Miss Cephalopod

    I met my first girlfriend through YGO fanfiction. Met an Australian penpal which later encouraged me to go on an exchange Down Under and meet her in person. And then I’ve met a Canadian friend through a tiny book fandom and she came to visit me for two weeks last year and we went to the first Queer As Folk convention together.

    I’ve met so many wonderful friends through my interests online, I’m very grateful. It still feels different from my friends from art school, with whom I can spontaneously go downtown to grab a beer or watch a movie, but my online friendships really saved me back in highschool when meat friends were hard for me to come by, and I’ll always appreciate that.

  • Penny Marie Sautereau

    I wrote a poem for my internet friends 13 years ago.

    “Ode To My Net Friends”

    Call out to my empty soul
    But once too much
    It stepped on me
    And chased me back into my home
    My life seemed cold
    With no recourse
    No way to keep
    My sanity
    Until I found
    In my own home
    Long distance lives
    To comfort me
    Reality was too selective
    And altogether quite defective
    All the people on my screen
    Have fully 3 dimensions
    The people in this world
    Are made of colored paper
    But the people of MY world
    Are as real as all my dreams
    I would go mad without you
    To talk to and repast with
    You are a treasure more than gold
    With you my friends might I grow old
    You are what keeps me sane
    My friends upon the screen

    -Penny, May 2000

  • DragonPunchSexy

    I have found that the majority of “internet friends” I’ve made over the years have fallen more into the “general acquaintances” category of interaction. Maybe I just haven’t been lucky enough to meet anyone that found me interesting enough to go beyond simple chit-chat, but ah well.

  • Fiona

    This is the most accurate opinion I have ever heard about ‘internet friendships’. Just like how we talk to our friends face-to-face about our other face-to-face friends, I talk to my ‘real life’ friends about my ‘internet friends’ I have two people in my ‘real life’ who understand what it’s like to connect with people online without ‘stranger danger’ and all of that. Most people think that the internet is turning me into more of an introvert than I was before and I disagree. I have never been able to make friends easily, apparently since before pre-k and I have been bullied (thankfully I don’t remember the beginning of it) for just as long. But online I can have friends who are just as different as me and they accept me for all of my awkwardness and anxiety. I just wish more people would realize that for people like myself this is something good, not bad.

  • Anonymous

    This is so relevant to my life right now as I’m in the process of making new real life friends after moving to a new area. A popular blogger and Twitter personality that I talk to often lives in this new area and after corresponding via tweet, email and most recently a phone call we have decided to not only meet in person but to get tickets to a local anime convention. And I could not be more thrilled that I’m moving an online friendship offline so quickly. You are so right about the joy of skipping the small talk and formalities and getting right into the friendship stuff. I love it considering the older I get the less interested I am in starting from square one with 20 different potential friends.

    When I was in high school I was shy, quiet, battling mental illness and not exactly a social butterfly. I was lonely and I lived on the internet. I did written message board RPGs religiously but everyone was always older than me, so I couldn’t really think of them as friends. And then in college I joined a RPG board run by people my age. A group of about 8 of us stuck with that game for three and a half years. We knew each others life stories, time zones, fandoms, races and religions. We graduated from college in succession. We helped each other through hard times. We talked on AIM and Skype almost every damn week. We exchanged phone numbers. We added each other on Facebook and some of us have met in real life. I’m planning to meet one in real life (finally!) later this year. AND our RPG was the shit and we all wept virtual tears when it was time to close that game. It was the reason we all met in the first place.

    What I’m basically trying to say is that, I’m one of those people that has had some really great experiences with online friends (I have another story I’ll save about meeting and befriending a blogger almost 7 years ago who is still part of my RL). Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Behind every screenname is a real person and more often than not they’re just like you.

  • Vivienne Callaghan

    That just made me want to cry. Are you OK now? You needed to finish this post!! I hope you are :D

  • Vivienne Callaghan

    I can honestly say playing a game around 4 years ago called ‘Faunasphere’ (now closed :’( ) and then opening up a Facebook Account whereupon the Faunasphere Crowd joined up or already where ‘in’ FB, and I still have contact with them. are indeed considered to be, by me a least, some really great friends. I have met a couple of them in real life too. These folk are as real to me as if I had met them all.

    They all have ‘feelings’ ‘hopes’ joys’ and all feel pain’ because they are all real. The fact they are ‘internet’ does not make any difference. I am very honoured to have the folk on my FB list that I do.

    More importantly, I met these people during a time in my life where I was in the grip of depression. Although they did not know how bad I had it and I never really spoke about it in depth, they unknowingly gave me the one thing that makes depression shrink back to the shadows…Laughter. So much laughter my ribs would ache and I could barely breath and tears streaming down my face…as well as my legs LOL.

    I have now met a whole plethora of new ones through another game ‘Glitch’ (again now closed – gahhhhh) but the amazing talent these folk have leave me breathless and again..honoured…I know these people… and what’s more…If I keep my language clean ^^…they will keep me too :D

    Actually, I am a lover of bad language as a way to express myself and even the most devote of my friends don’t turn from me because of that…They show a level of friendship that even folk whom I have cultured friendships with in ‘real life’ never could. There are no expectations and no demands – that is what I think is ‘Key’ to friends that you build up through games and then get to know more in depth. They don’t require anything from you – but I would give them anything I could.

  • Lisa

    Oh, no! I didn’t mean to make anyone cry. I’m fine now, except for a wicked long, itchy scar. Surgery totally slayed the cancer.

  • Nat

    THIS! A friend of mine had to go to intensive out patient therapy and she was on her own and her parents couldn’t come up so I went and stayed with her for the week and drove and picked her up each day.

  • http://notsosimples.wordpress.com/ Louise

    I have a load of online friends, we met on a well known magazine’s online forum and started a Facebook group when the forum was closed for maintenance over two years ago now. We’ve evolved over the years, gained new members and had others leave too. We’ve experienced births, marriages and other life changing moments. I talk to them all day every day and I would be absolutely lost without them, of course not everyone gets along all the time but we’re always there for each other, we grew especially close when we sadly lost one of our members to a terrible disease. They really are an amazing group of people

  • Vivienne Callaghan

    Well that’s just Feckin’ A :D One in the eye for cancer and a Win for Lisa :)

  • Vivienne Callaghan

    See. That’s it! I haven’t had anything like this or needed it but I know I would be there if I could and when I went on holiday I gave my FB account to another FB friend who took care of stuff for me whilst I was out and about. Never met her in my life, but I knew I could trust her…and others too :D

    And Kudos Nat :D

  • Nat

    *HUGS*

  • Nat

    Nice to meet you!

  • haneen

    my very first internet friend i have ever gotten was in about 2009 her name is lucky (atleast its her nickname her real name is difficult) shes from italy currently living in latvia. i live in saudi arabia and it also turns out that the time diffrence between us isnt very much :)

    we met in a game called ourworld again in 2009 i remember we went to a place called the beach and we promised we would be best friends forever and around some time in 2010 we traded facebook accounts and started talking from there and then skype and kik and all of that.

    she has seen me one or two times but once i started covering my face (because im a muslim) i just kinda stopped video chatting, she still video chats although

    we have known each other for like what? 4 years? its amazing how long we have known each other i freaking love this girl ok. c: