Love and Loss: They’re Real, With Online Friends

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Back in the day, AOL chatroom users coined clever usernames and practiced caution against running up big-time per-minute charges. In that early Internet environment, “A/S/L?” arose as the existential question when you communicated online.

Age, sex and location gave us the essentials for the person we chatted with. Chatters sometimes even told the truth, yet sincerity wasn’t totally necessary in an age of chat handles. Online, you could be whoever you wanted to be.

Internet waters now still contain enough catfish to elicit caution as you navigate digital friendship. However, most people use their actual names – first and last. By blog or messaging apps, boundaries blur between digital existence and real life.

Post a status update for your child’s kindergarten graduation or grandmother’s death and get instant reactions from your social circle. Yet, just as easily, we can mute online interaction with certain people. We can unsubscribe from blogs and unfriend and block tweets. This has made online friendships become as easily disposable as they are accessible. Relationships are easily fostered – or abandoned.

In the 1990s, before the advent of Facebook, anthropologist Robin Dunbar capped a person’s capacity for friends at 150. “Friendships decay when you don’t see people, and they decay quite fast,” Dunbar said in a 2013 interview for the website Social Science Space. “And what Facebook seems to do is just slow down the rate of decay.”

Where real world and digital life collide

Online friendship can stay just that – or become something else.

“I met my fiancé on a really skeezy dating website,” admits Emily. She and her future wife didn’t meet in person for at least a month. Her fiancé wasn’t Emily’s first online connection. She says at age 14, she met a pen pal online. A year later, that friend took a three-hour flight to spend a week with her family.

Soulmates and besties aside, the Internet teems with legions of friends in waiting.

In an article about why online friends are valuable, blogger Lynn Morrison wrote, “If you are a 30-something mother of two, full-time employee, part-time writer and all-the-time wife, it is impossible to find the time to go join into the myriad of activities it takes to make new friends ‘in real life.’” She cited freedom to pick friends and flexibility of time to devote to them as reasons to have online friends. Another great reason? “I can hang out with them in my pajamas.”

What happens when online friends die?

Online friends can encroach on your real-life heart.

Kathleen Gilbert wrote the book “Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe.” In it, she said, “If you have an online presence in your life, you have the issue of your ‘digital legacy’ to consider as you prepare for your eventual death.” Not all users think that far ahead.

It can be difficult to track when online friends die or just fade away.

If a blogger hasn’t posted since 2013, did they give up the blog – or give up the ghost? Has that faithful tweeter forgotten her password and opened another account? Or did she forget to wear her seatbelt before a traffic accident?

Sometimes we text or talk with our online friends via phone, and know when things happen.

Facebook user Jenn said she planned to meet a Twitter friend for lunch. He died in a car accident before she could. It’s an example of how a digital friendship stayed online. Such friendships can reverberate offline, too.

“He was still rocking social media with scheduled tweets that went out after his death,” she said. “It was inspiring to see that, and sad in the same thought.”


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About Author

Eli

Eli studied English and Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte. A former sportswriter, he writes a blog about coaching his daughters in soccer and once was mistaken for racecar driver Juan Pablo Montoya. He writes on the Internet and other technology. He’s a native of Greeley, Colo., an avid NPR listener and average disc golfer.

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