Deeper Online Friendships
Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 9/10/2007
According to a recent study (as reported by Yahoo News), even though the Internet is increasing the number of acquaintances we have, the number of close friends is staying about the same with all people and tend to be those people we see face to face. This is hardly a surprise for anyone who has been actively involved in the online community. I think there are several reasons for this.
Reasons Online Friendships Do Not Deepen
One reason why online friendships stay so shallow is because we are constantly questioning whether this person is the type of person we would want to be out friend. Is this person going to stab us in the back when he gets the chance? Does this person share an interest in more of a friendship than is permitted by the constraints of the meeting place? It is difficult for us to know. Away from the Internet we can judge based on body language, but on the Internet we have nothing but words.
We usually speak to our online friends through a public forum, so the benefits of having a closer relationship do not exist as they do away from the Internet. At church, for example, I might speak to everyone at one time. While most of these people are my friends, there are some who are only acquaintances and some that I have not met. I am less open with my conversation in these situations. Then there are closer groups of people, a class for example, that are more likely to hear other things. There are even closer circles of friends that are interested enough to want to know what is happening in my life and I will tell them. There are even closer friends with which I am comfortable sharing more intimate details of my life. People who are married have an even more intimate relationship with a spouse. There are benefits of having a closer relationship as well as risks. Online, the benefits and risks remain mostly constant.
Another thing to think about is that there is a limit to the number of people we can keep track of. I have heard that we have a limit of about 250 people. If we are encountering fifty people on one site and fifty people on another site an the paths seldom cross then it does not take long before we are overwhelmed with a sea of usernames rather than making close friends.
Ideas for Developing Closer Online Friendships
We build friendships, whether online or otherwise, on trust. Part of the reason that trust develops is because the people we encounter have similar traits to people we already trust. If our desire is to build more intimate online relationships then we need to focus our attention on those people who look like those we trust. That is not to say that a Christian should go to a Christian website and assume that he is going to encounter people he can trust. There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing, but one should not expect to find a sheep amid a pack of wolves.
Many of our online friendships are governed by the websites on which we find these friends. For these sites to encourage more intimate relationships, they need to allow for increasing benefits as a deeper friendship develops rather than the current system in which a person is either a friend, an acquaintance, or someone who has been blocked. Perhaps acquaintances would be allowed to communicate through the open forum. Friends could communicate privately. Closer friends would be given tasks that would require collaboration. Even closer friends would have things that they have to work out together for the benefit of one or both. At some point, friends would begin to collaborate on other sites as well and even be expected to share personal information, but only with those people who have gained their trust.
Many people want to develop friendships with people and yet it never occurs. Often the reason for this is that the other person is considered to be too aloof or too busy to be bothered. Becoming friends can often require a conscious effort. One person may think, “I want to be friends with him,” and the other person may not have thought about it. Unless the first person makes and effort, the friendship may not develop. The same is true in an online community. If you have a desire to develop a closer friendship with someone online, you must open the lines of communication as well as open up to this person. There is always some amount of risk involved, but if you take your time and don’t expect more than the other person is willing to given then I think deeper online friendships can be developed.