These Are My “Real” Friends: Removing the Stigma of Online Friendships

Almost two years ago, I met some of the people I consider to be my best friends. That might not sound so odd, if not for the fact that I’d already known them for years at that point.

Even in an age where most of our lives are conducted online in one way or another, there’s still a fairly heavy stigma attached to online friendships; we even find it necessary to distinguish between “Internet friends” and “real friends.” Why are we still so unwilling to accept that the fairly arbitrary line we’ve set up to differentiate is fuzzier than it seems?

People argue, “You never really know someone when you meet them online.” Well, folks, I’ve met a lot of people face-to-face who turned out not to be at all what they presented themselves as. I’d say that you’re no more guaranteed to get a sense of someone’s true character in person than you are online. Sure, there’s always a chance of a Catfish situation, but lots of people have been taken in by real-life con artists, killers, and general scumbags who “seemed like such nice people” at the time. What we choose to present of ourselves is entirely under our control, whether that’s online or face-to-face.

What’s amazing about the Internet, among other things, is that you have the opportunity to really find your niche. I grew up in a fairly small town, so being a sci-fi and comics nerd who loved makeup, ’80s and ’90s pop music, fancy cake, and sushi pretty much made me a peer group of one. Having exposure to an entire world’s worth of people, though, allowed me to seek out and interact with people who shared my interests, people I never would have encountered otherwise. Not to mention that there’s a certain level of introversion that many people who spend a lot of their time online share, and being an introvert on that level often limits your in-person social activity.

The group of people I consider to be my closest friends and I all met on a message board for former users of another website. It was the first time I’d really let myself be less than completely anonymous online. At 34, I’m old enough to remember a whole lot of my life before the Internet, and I’d been indoctrinated with a fairly hefty dose of “maintain anonymity at all costs.” Little by little, I started to let that go. Soon, I was interacting with the people who I got along with in a variety of other settings: email, Tumblr, Gchat, text message, Facebook, you name it. We’ve been through marriages, career crises, family drama, health problems, pregnancies, dating woes, culinary adventures, fashion emergencies, and every other piece of daily life that you can imagine. We’ve been on vacation together. We meet up when one of us is traveling near any of the others. These are the people I turn to first when I need advice or a shoulder to cry on. And I’m supposed to consider them not to be “real” friends because we didn’t meet in high school or at a bar or through work? No thanks. These people are my friends, not my “friends.”

Last June, the P-Mag editors had a weekend retreat. Most of us had worked together for a year or two or more at that point. Several of the editors are actually college friends. Did that make those of us who weren’t any less a part of the group? No way. That was an amazing weekend, and being able to physically interact with these people who I already knew so well, who I talk to every single day, and who know almost all there is to know about me, well, that was just an extra level of friendship, not the singular and necessary one. Just because I can’t call Selena to meet me for drinks in an hour doesn’t mean she’s not one of my closest friends; we just came about it in a slightly less traditional way.

So why is the conventional, meeting-in-person method of making friends still considered to be the only right way to do it, while meeting people online is widely regarded as weird or dangerous or suspicious? Why is online dating generally regarded as no longer a big deal, but online friendships are something we still feel the need to lie about? Making friends as an adult is hard. Why automatically discount one of the best ways to meet people who you share interests with and who you genuinely enjoy talking to? I think we’ve moved past the point where all online activity should be viewed with suspicion and derision. I think Facebook is largely responsible for removing anonymity from social media; whether or not that’s a good thing or has gone too far is a discussion for another time. But, for the most part, we know each others’ names, we know our jobs and our lives and what we like to eat and what our favorite TV shows are.

Why should I view my interactions with people on my friends list who I happened to attend high school with almost two decades ago as more “real” relationships than the ones I have with people who I talk to every day? People who know my life as it is, not as it was or as I want others to think it is; these are my friends. And I’m tired of trying to hide the fact that we met via a keyboard and monitor rather than through an equally artificially constructed set of social factors: work, school, book clubs, what have you. I’m tired of feeling like I have to differentiate between my friends based on how we met. The value of my friendships can be found in what we mean to each other, how we talk, what we give back and forth, not where or how we met or the fact that such a large chunk of society feels like we’re oddballs for being “online friends.” These days, the Internet is our workplace, our bar, our social club, and our library. It’s where we spend our time, where we learn things, and how we entertain ourselves. Why shouldn’t it be where we make friends, too?

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[E] Rachel

I punctuate sentences with Oxford commas, and I punctuate disagreements with changesocks. Proud curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.

30 thoughts on “These Are My “Real” Friends: Removing the Stigma of Online Friendships”

  1. Thank you! I am still in contact with some close friends from grade school and high school – I’m almost 45 now. For the past eight years I’ve been battling debilitating mental illness, unable to work, had to ask my mother to care for my kids…I feel like a shell of who I used to be.

    My on-line friends share common interests – especially the knitting and crocheting ones – and I can just be me, without the baggage. A few have become phone friends and a few I have been lucky enough to meet in person. They are a huge part of my life. My current and real life.

    I really needed to hear this today.

  2. All of this!

    Earlier today I was thinking about a song I used to LOVE by MC Lars- Internet Relationships (are not real). When it came out I thought it was great, but listening to it now, after meeting so many great people via the internets and then even some of them face to face, I just can’t like the song.

  3. Wonderful article. I have a hard time making friends outside of the internet, partly because I’m an introvert and don’t feel comfortable enough to show the goober I am at heart, and because I don’t speak if I have nothing to say to people I don’t know, which is often. I definitely grew up with parents who insisted I don’t give any private info on the internet, and I definitely won’t do that to anyone I haven’t been friends with for a long while, but I’ve realized how amazing of a tool the internet is in making friends.

    I have a tumblr, and I’m an open book on there, so people have a chance to know who I am by following my blog, and therefore I don’t have to answer the dreaded “tell me about yourself” question. We internet folks become friends through our personalities first, no fronts drawn up, so you know when they speak to you that they’ve seen and are okay with who you really are as a person. So then you’re comfortable immediately and it seriously accelerates the friend-making process.

    As I was reading this, I realized that I do tend to think of my in-person friends as a separate category from my internet-made friends. I haven’t yet met up with any friends I met online, but a few of us have fangirled over doing it when the possibility arises. I have 2 in the same region as me, but those two and I are much more of casual, occasionally-speak-to-each-other-friends. The friend I’m closest to online is in another part of the country, but they’ll be moving to a state much closer soon, and I hope to be able to have more freedom traveling when I’m 18. This has become a rant.

    But anyway, this has made me realize that, even though I’ve not met them in person, they’re still friends to me, and I enjoy their company, and there’s no reason for them to be separated in my mind.

  4. Because of the way things have shaken out since college, and especially within the last year of moving and starting a second job (and now grad school!), meeting up face-to-face with my friends I know in person has been nearly non-existent. I honestly don’t know how I would have survived without internet friends–with whom there was no disruption in relationship–and for the community here at P-Mag, well, I’m still a relative newbie, but I feel noticed and welcomed here, and I like that. :) You ladies are all so lovely! :)

  5. I started chatting online around 2000 and was meeting friends across the country within the year. I stopped making a distinction between the two sets of friends a long time ago. People don’t even question how I know someone in Indiana, Victoria, San Francisco, etc, since I’ve known them all so long now. I guess if they ask how we meet I say we met online but it doesn’t really register that there is anything odd about it anymore. But every once in awhile someone will still give me that ‘look’ about it. So this article is great.

  6. It was really hard to explain to people why I would fly across the country to go to a memorial service for someone I’d never met in person, plus share a hotel with one person I’d never met and another I’d only met once.

    But honestly, I love meeting my internet friends IRL. I’ve known most of them so long that by the time we see each other in person, there’s none of that awkward new friend stuff. We just pick up like we’ve been hanging out for years. It’s amazing.

  7. I love my internet friends. They’re far and away more badass than most of my irl friends, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last few friends without them. I’ve met a few of them in person, and while it totally freaked out my parents (lol), they’re totally fucking awesome people and I can’t wait to “meet” more of them.

  8. Friends that I’ve made on the Internet are truly a treasure to me. The friendships I’ve formed through various channels (some of them similar to the ones PoM mentioned) are among the most meaningful in my life. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with some of them in person, but that doesn’t take away anything from the ones that I haven’t seen yet.

  9. When I found out I was pregnant with my now-ten-year-old daughter, I was looking for some kind of support group for single moms and ended up on a parenting message board. It’s been about 11 years now and there are about 10 of us who are still together. The board shut down many years ago, we moved to another one that also shut down, and now we have a Facebook group. I’ve met two of the ladies in person and talked to a few others on the phone quite a bit over the years. Some of them live closer together, maybe 3 or 4 hours apart, and they get together several times a year. Others live halfway across the country from each other but talk via phone, text, email so often that they are BFFs. We’ve been together through marriages, divorces, custody battles, new babies, breakups, deaths, new jobs, new houses, you name it.

    I also have an online group of friends that I met on another site, probably the same one you mentioned in this post, and I would be lost without them. They know more about me than any of my “real life” friends ever have. And so far I’ve only met one in person (and I adore her, we have so much in common, and our girls are now friends too) but it feels weird to even type that because it doesn’t seem like it could be true. It feels like I’ve met them in person even though I haven’t.

    I’m so glad this article was posted now, at a time where online relationships are getting such a bad rap because of that show.

  10. “The group of people I consider to be my closest friends and I all met on a message board for former users of another website.”

    That is just a group of friends and I are. Well, we started on one website and when it turned to shit, we moved to our own. I’ve known some of them since 2001, yet I’ve only ever met one person from the site in “real” life. There are also some other online pockets where I feel the same way.

    High-five for this article.

  11. So great.

    I had my first Internet “meetup” almost a year ago, after being part of a social media group for several months. I was a little nervous – it was like a first date. Would we all like each other? Would people think I was awesome or weird in person? I mean, they seemed to like me online, but like you, I grew up in the “Internet is dangerous and not real” era so I still had a healthy dose of paranoia.

    I was late to the restaurant, and once I got there and was greeted by hugs, someone said, “We were wondering if you were talking to [name of boy I’d discussed at length in the group]!” Which was hilarious, just the right thing to say and really broke the ice.

    I love this group. We’ve had our differences, but they’ve also helped me through some really difficult times (namely, job and boy woes, and a friend’s death this past summer). And I like to think I’ve helped them.

    Great article! Thank you for saying what so many of us think.

  12. This is wonderful, and so full of truthiness.

    PoM is usually either the first or last person I “talk” to every day, and even though I’ve only known her for two and a half years, I can’t remember what my life was like before we were friends.

    This is the only picture of the two of us together in existence:

  13. Excellent, excellent article.

    I love my IR/O friends. I’ve traveled out of the country to meet them (okay, it was only Canada but that’s another country, y’all!) and I’ve hosted friends from abroad at my house – I took a friend from Brazil to the VFW for karaoke -if that’s not a test of friendship, I don’t know what is!

    The ones I haven’t met, I just haven’t met *yet.*

    Great work, PoM!

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