Varieties of friendship


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.

2 thoughts on “Varieties of friendship

  1. Henry Beer

    Who was it that said,”…ninelty percent of communication is non-verbal.” When it comes to friendship the ways in which we bond for keeps have to do with shared experiences–more to do with doing rather than knowing. One need only look at wartime, natural disasters or other potentially life-changing radical shared experiences to see the enduring connections that often can result from real shared experience. It’s interesting to note that the more unpredictable the outcome of that experience, the more potential that shared experience has for creating a lifetime connection.

  2. Aristotle Pagaltzis

    And yet, there were offline friends who surprised and dismayed me with their mores and behaviour when we started communicating electronically. I thought I knew them…

    Meanwhile, the trepidation during the transition to the embodied has only been transitory in my experiences.

    One thing I have found is that it is qualitatively harder to share deeper emotional experiences in person than in writing.

    Which cuts both ways; it can make people seem more interesting online than they really are. Or at least, sometimes I have discovered them to be bores; sometimes I have merely found them to not be entertaining in person. One mode is not necessarily realer than the other.

    And so I have actually found in-person communication to be shallower in some ways than written communication, even while it offers a richer form of this… shallowness.

    Or a rich form of richness.

    Sometimes one minuscule gesture conveys a million things that could never be put into words.

    And sometimes the grotesqueness of being a body makes it impossible to express the fleeting fantastical or lyrical.

    To the literarily inclined, this should be no surprise.

    (Curiously – with some irony considering the way you have painted the term –, I think of in-person communication as the “real time” form and electronic communication as the reflective. Considering that it is written communication, that certainly seems like that should be its natural mode. Then again I have never owned a cell phone and will resist it to the last… I do not live by push notifications to my pocket and never will. And maybe it is this general unwillingness of mine to be overly connected that underlies my experiences; which possibly makes them less valuable as a point of reference…)

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