Sometimes I wonder if social media only friendships (as in friendships formed on social media, based on common interests or appreciation of “web personality”, without meeting the person for any significant amount of time) are a lot more brittle than those formed in real life (and extended on social media, after moving away due to compulsions of life — relocation etc). I seriously hope it ain’t so, but a few examples do seem to hint at that.
I say I hope it isn’t so, because over the last few years, my most cherished friendships are formed, and sustained primarily online. I have met some of these people once or twice, if at all, that too in socially awkward (like a lunch with a bunch of people I’m meeting first time, and even most of the people are meeting each other for the first time). In such situations, people are cautious, guarded, and generally not themselves. Yes I’ve talked to some of them on chats/calls for extended time, I know a lot about their lives, probably more than I know about some other IRL (in real life) friends.
I took to Facebook way before many, at least back home (before that there was Orkut, of course). What I liked, above all, was the non-demanding nature of the medium (then). It wasn’t a big deal. Not many were there. Those who were there, didn’t check it every now and then, and responded at leisure. It was not the tyranny of casual responses then. Along the way, apart from getting back in touch with older school/college friends, I also discovered new friends (not just on FB, but through FB many times, as blogs were discovered, people were noticed thanks to common commenting patterns on a friend’s blog, and so on).
But while, it’s been mostly positive — in terms of finding new people who you can connect with intellectually (primarily) and emotionally (to the extent that one can in online only relationship), this journey has also highlighted the pitfalls of such relationships. Mainly, the lack of strong emotional base that comes naturally to old style friendships/relationships. Of course, I don’t want to generalize. And it’s not like it’s guaranteed in old style friendships. Just as without emotional bonds, intellectual bonds are weak, not being able to connect intellectually, does strain emotional bonds as well, many times. So if your relationships are bounded by “availability” of like-minded friends (and I don’t mean your copies, but those you could connect with, and sustain a level of interactions with — both intellectual and emotional), you are at a loss too: the very reason that the online relationships look so tempting, in the first place.
One things I’ve observed (and I’ve seen others express similar thoughts) is that in web-social situations, we’re often a lot more aggressive, a lot less forgiving, a lot more reactive. Again, on average, and there are notable exceptions (those, I feel envious of, in a positive sense). This could be side effect of a more “cerebral” level at which these interactions happen (and I’m conscious that many lament the exact “lack of” intellectual content in some of these forum — but that’s really noise that any big enough gathering is going to have, and in the end, we hang around because we see the enriching conversations or interesting pointers, and so on). On the Internet, it seems, belonging to groups (liberal/conservative, and hundreds such schisms) is a peer-pressure equivalent. In old style relationships, many times, it doesn’t matter. And so one doesn’t need to prove one identifies to this/that ideology, this/that political thought, and so on. But on FB/Twitter, and such platforms, it almost isn’t optional.
The other problem is the offense. Offense has always been subjective. What your best friend, or a younger sibling can get away with is very different from what others could, but in web-social situations, in the absence of strong emotional bonds, there is very little “credit” in anyone’s account. And you never know when you’ve done an over draft. And god save you when that happens, because rebuilding those bridges becomes herculean in an online only relationship. It’s like, you suddenly realize, the person doesn’t know you at all. And then there is that reactive sense of being betrayed, almost. The thing is, you almost don’t have non-verbal cues to help you, and words are bitches, when they know you need to rely on them alone.
Add to that, the ease of ending the 2.0 relationships — unlike the old world ones, where one is bound to bump into a person, and look into their eyes, or forced to introspect, to doubt one’s hard stance. In web-social situation, it’s so much easier. You stop acknowledging the person. It’s like a break-up with a text message, and better (in a warped sense, really), because you don’t have to deal with what that does.
Over the years, I’ve resigned to suddenly losing a friend 2.0 to a misunderstanding that can never be explained, as it gets worse with explanation. Of offending someone with no intention and again being totally, completely, powerless about conveying to that person where you were coming from; of thinking you know somebody to realize you don’t, at all, really. The only antidote, is to meet those 2.0 friends you care about, whenever possible. Spend face to face time with them, preferably not in gatherings. It is not foolproof. But nothing is. It’s just that when you spend half-an-hour with a person, you know a lot about them that you don’t in online interactions for months/years. It builds the credit that friendship really needs. It comes in handy, in conflicts. The second is to be aware of the limitations of the medium, and be careful in dispensing, and be magnanimous in accepting. Okay magnanimous is too big a word. But you get it, right? Be a little more forgiving, and expect a little less forgiveness.
As it happens, this last is relevant to every relationship. 2.0 or not.