Do online friendships count as real friendships?
“Online friends are there for you when you need them emotionally, like a real friend. The only thing that differentiates an online friend from a real friend is the physical connection that you can have with someone that geographically is near you."
I have Shoraz Himmel’s contact information saved in my phone as ‘Shoraz Bhai’ – ‘bhai’ being the Gujarati term for ‘brother’ – and that’s exactly the type of friend he’s been to me: He’s seen me on my good days, my bad days, and my just plain ugly days. He’s one of my closest friends, someone tried and true.
I’ve never met Shoraz in real life.
“Real life friends – in my experience – are more fleeting than online friends,” Shoraz said, “Especially if you move around a lot. Online friends are fleeting too, but they stick around longer.”
After moving to New York, Shoraz left a lot of what was familiar to him – his home, friends and family – behind in Kuwait. While he keeps in close contact with his childhood friends through online gaming and calls, he also seeks out new ones (which is how we met).
In the time I’ve known him, I’ve seen Shoraz through more than four different living spaces and six different jobs around New York. Keeping up steady, in-person contact with friends near him isn’t just difficult – it’s almost impossible with his pace.
“While online friends, by definition, are online. So they come with you wherever you go,” he said.
As I considered Shoraz’s situation, I came to understand his stance. It didn’t give me a distinctly clear answer to my question, though.
Did his response mean that online friends were essentially the same as offline friends?
“I think online friends are real [friends],” my friend, Bethany Simpson, said, “but I don't think you can have as deep of a friendship with [someone online] as with someone you spend time with in person.”
I came to know Bethany during the autumn of my first year at the University of South Carolina.
We met when I came to a Friendsgiving celebration at the invitation of my hall’s resident mentor. As Bethany and I became fast friends in the following weeks, it was easy to see just how deeply rooted she was in the local Columbia community that surrounded her.
So when I asked her about whether she thought online friendships could be considered ‘real’ friendships, she found the question to be a tough one.
“Online friendships, in my outsider opinion, seem to be one-dimensional in that the only memory-making you can do is through that one means.”
Playing games online together, for example, differs vastly from exercising together, cooking together, and taking care of each other when sick, she said. Sure, you can do variations of those things from a distance – paying for food to be delivered, providing encouragement in difficult times – but it just isn’t the same.
“To sum it up,” Bethany said, “in-person friendships have a vastly greater potential to grow, deepen, and last than online friendships do.”
And so the more I thought about Bethany’s reasoning, the more it made sense to me. After all, most of my memories of friends when growing up came from real-life interactions I had with them, versus my online interactions where I couldn’t remember one game from the next.
Was Bethany right?
Like Shoraz, some say the distance makes the online friendship stronger than a traditional, in-person one. But like Bethany, others say that’s what can break an online friendship and make it weaker than a real life one.
Did this simply mean that real life friendships and online friendships are too different to be compared on the same scale?
What defines a friendship?
Enter Hanna Trinh.
“I feel that online and real friendships can have the same connection,” she said. “I have online friends who I can honestly say have been the best friends I could have ever asked for.”
I first became acquainted with Hanna my third year of high school, but we didn’t become close until after I graduated. That summer was when we started playing "League of Legends" with one other and spent hours talking to each in online calls. Then, after some additional time spent at coffee shops, we became best friends.
There’s a stigma surrounding friendships made or kept online, I think. It’s true that there’s a bit more danger to them than most in-person ones, and that the ways you’ll create memories are quite different from the ones you were used to growing up.
That doesn’t make them any less real, though.
Shoraz (online) and Bethany (offline) have both helped me through the same rough spots in my life, and Hanna (both) has seen a good portion of them all. So if it’s not where the friendship is kept, then what defines its depth?
It’s the depth of the individuals, themselves.
“Real friends are people who enjoy each other’s company,” Hanna said. “Real friends are people who are there for you through thick and thin.”
Be it online, or IRL.