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Do Online Friendships Differ From Face-to-Face Friendships?

Will online friends make the face-to-face cut?

A lot of us had been reaching out to solidify connections with our support networks as we navigated our own personal lockdown living. Some of us also probably turned to the vast pool of online support options, as many of us felt the need to create a safety net or wider array of social and emotional support options.

When we’re faced with a crisis, one of our first responses might be to seek our support—there’s logic behind the saying, “There is safety in numbers.” It’s human nature to create and rely on a social support network and with the internet, we’ve been able to reach out to people around the globe and share our experiences over the past months.

Some of these relationships may have “heated up” due to the crisis situation we found ourselves facing. As we begin to acclimate to the new routines and work arrangements we’re entering, we may be wondering about our ability to maintain these close connections—as well as wondering about our interest in maintaining them.

What Makes a Friendship?

For any relationship to count as a friendship, several factors must be present. These include mutual affinity, mutual respect, and reciprocity. The most basic purpose of a friendship is to provide support, similar to family relationships in the best of circumstances. However, friendships are unique in that they are totally voluntary relationships—you can’t make a person like you or want to socially engage with you if they have no interest in doing so.

The three most common “motivating factors” for friendship development include shared interests, shared activities, or proximity. However, we also tend to subconsciously measure the potential “value” or “appropriateness” of a new friend by things such as their appearance, their status, their values, and their similarity to ourselves.

Our face-to-face social lives tend to be more conscripted by these factors than they do in our online lives. When we’re in an online environment, we tend to focus on individual qualities and experiences than these more culturally-bound or culturally-influenced factors.

It’s usually pretty easy to build an online support network through formal and informal pathways, whether you’re seeking advice on a particular topic or responding to others’ posts or to those who respond to your own social media posts.

In an online environment, we are typically seeking out people who share our hobbies, interests, or experiences. We want to connect with people who reflect our passions or our feelings about topics that we value, such as social issues, political issues, or contemporary culture. We also like to connect with those who are experiencing the events or transitions that we are experiencing, such as new mothers and home bakers. We also connect over hobbies, such as fellow kayakers, armchair travelers, or Disney World fans. Health and personal challenges also lead us to reach out to those who are facing similar things, such as 12-step groups or disease/illiness-specific support groups.

While few of us are actually going to meet up with online friends/real-world strangers, there is less concern about “how others see them” and more about what they mean to us and what we gain from the relationship. In addition, the more time we spend with someone, the more likely we are to begin to “like them” and feel a connection. If we visit an online support group or online chat group on a regular and consistent basis, the more likely we are to begin to see the group members or chat partners as “friends.”

Dark Secrets May Be More Easily Shared Online

Another benefit of online friends is the freedom we feel to share information with those that we are unlikely to ever meet in person as we don’t fear later shame or that feeling of “retroactive embarrassment.” It’s like the willingness to share more personal information with others in stalled elevators or in happenstance transient friendships that pop up over a vacation or summer camp, etc. There’s a greater sense of anonymity and less concern about “what will this person think of me?” We are unlikely to be seeing this person on a frequent basis, so we won’t be reminded of our vulnerability and personal revelations. Our “confessions” are limited to a containable space and shared with people we actually never have to engage with again, if we choose not to.

"Pandemic Friends" May Disappear When Pandemic Fears Subside

While some online friendships deepen over time and endure for decades, there has to be more to the relationship than just one shared preference or experience. Friendships that flourish require an investment of time, energy, and support.

The most important aspect of friendship longevity has to do with the ability of the relationship to handle the dynamic nature of individuals. People are not static—we are changing and developing every day. If a friendship is too brittle or based on a single shared commonality, it is unlikely to have the depth and resilience to thrive as each person moves through life. While we all have friends from different stages of our lives, and seeing them may take us back in our minds to that time when their presence in our lives was so valued, if we don’t have enough connections beyond that one shared thing, the relationship won’t endure.

Will Our New Online Friends Make the “F2F World” Friendship Cut?

When we’re only engaging in online connections, we’re focused on the similarities between us and others. However, when we’re thinking of moving to a face-to-face relationship, we may become keenly aware of the differences between us and our online friends.

Not only does the depth of the connection matter, so does our willingness to let the part of ourselves that we may have shared in pseudo-anonymity and confidentially online “show up” in our real lives. If the bond is built on a love of a travel destination, we may plan a destination meet-up. This can become an annual pilgrimage or the experience may lead us to realize that one face-to-face meet-up may be enough for a lifetime if that perfectly acceptable online friend turns out to be totally unacceptable as a friend in real life—for whatever reason that might be.

Another aspect of moving online friendships into our real world is that when we share online, we are doing so in the comfort and privacy of our own homes. We are controlling the audience, the setting, and our communications. When we build friendships in face-to-face settings, we are losing any sense of anonymity and our being “exposed” in a way that some online connections cannot survive, for whatever reason.

In essence, all friendships are going to be voluntary relationships and as much as we might like to be able to “force friend” a person, it’s not something we can force to happen. Just as some friendships are really reflections of who we were at a certain point in our lives, but nothing more, some online friendships will only be able to exist when they are restricted to the virtual world where we can share and be whatever we want with a sense of safety from more public exposure.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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