I contributed to the latest New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion, which posed this question: “Can real relationships be forged between people who never meet? Do online-only friendships count?” Here’s my reply, slightly expanded from what appeared in the Times:
“No kinds of love,” sang Lou Reed in his Velvet Underground days, “are better than others.” There’s wisdom as well as kindness in that line. Only the mean of spirit would seek to redline certain varieties of love or friendship — to claim that some human relationships “don’t count.” I have happy memories of exchanging letters with distant pen pals while in elementary school, and I recall with fondness the conversations I had with like-minded cyberians in America Online chatrooms in the early nineties. Life is lonely; all connections have value.
That doesn’t mean that all connections are the same. If it’s odious to dismiss online friendships as invalid, it’s naive to pretend that there are no distinctions in quality between friendships forged in person and those conducted from afar. An epistolary friendship is different from a telephonic friendship, and an email friendship is different from a Facebook friendship. And all of those mediated, or disembodied, friendships are different from embodied friendships, the ones established between persons who are in close enough proximity to actually touch each other.
The differences between virtual and embodied friendships come clearly into view at moments of transition, when an embodied friendship becomes a virtual one or vice versa. People who have built a friendship in person have little trouble continuing the friendship online when they’re separated. The friendship may eventually peter out — absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder — but the friends don’t feel any anxiety about exchanging messages through their phones or laptops.
Now think about what happens when people who have struck up friendships online finally get together in the physical world. The meetings are usually approached with nervousness and trepidation. Will we hit it off? Will we still like each other when we’re sitting at a table together? Who is this person, anyway?
The anxiety that virtual friends feel when they’re about to meet in person is telling. It reveals the fragility, the sparseness, of disembodied relationships. It makes plain that we don’t feel we really know another person until we’ve met him or her in the flesh. Screen presence leaves a lot of room for fantasizing, for projecting the self into the other; physical presence is more solid, more filled in — and, yes, more real. “Some kinds of love are mistaken for vision,” Reed sang in that same song. And some visions are mistaken for love.
Photo by John.