Friendship In The Virtual World: Is It Real?

by Karen Patten
Originally Published: 

I could tell from the tone of her text (is that a thing?) that this was real. This was important, and something was horribly wrong. “Can I call?” she texted. “Yep,” I texted back. She called. I was greeted by her usually cheerful and giggly voice, but it quickly unraveled and dissolved into heartbreaking weeping. My heart ripped right down the middle.

Once you’re a mother, it gets harder to make friends, doesn’t it? I mean, you make mom friends — the mothers of your child’s classmates and friends — and you hope you can tolerate them long enough to make it through school functions and birthday parties. These mom friends are like the friends I used to call “work friends.” They may not be the friends you chose, but they’re the ones you’ve got. Love the one you’re with and all that.

But it’s not the same. What about real friends?

Playdates feel like first dates. Soccer games feel like a session of speed dating, and meeting somebody you click with feels desperately like you should ask them over to dinner now or loose your chance for a reliable mani/pedi buddy forever.

Today, you can turn to the “bar scene” of meeting friends for moms — the internet. Friends in Facebook groups and other online friends feel real, connected, genuine, and maybe even closer than some of your IRL friends.

But are these online friendships “real”? I’d always assumed they were somehow…less than my real life friendships, or at the very least, “other” or “different” than “real” friends. I’ve been on the mom bar dating scene, starting with AOL Messenger. Remember AOL dial-up and always getting kicked off?

One online friend in particular is a friend who I’ve been lucky enough to meet once in real life, but a friend I deeply cherish. This woman is one of those rare, truly generous people — more so than most people you ever meet in real life. She has a goodness and a kindness that radiates from inside. Her laugh is contagious, and people love her and love being around her. She’s had her struggles and uses them to power her forward and to help other people. She’s one of the most genuine, kind, and giving people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I feel lucky to call her my friend.

But since our relationship was mostly confined to the internet, I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of our friendship. That changed when she texted me, upset, needing to talk. If I continue with my dating metaphor, this would be the moment we committed to not see other people. (So the metaphor breaks down here just a little…sorry.)

When her weeping voice greeted me on the phone, I was lost and thrown off balance. I’m not used to seeing this side of her. Frustrated, I’ve seen. Stumped or perplexed? Yes. We message or talk on the phone. I’m a fix-it kinda gal — the Olivia Pope of friends, if you will. I like to offer suggestions, to fix things that are broken or breaking.

But this time, I couldn’t fix anything. I wasn’t there with her. I don’t personally know the characters in this act of her life’s play. I didn’t know how or what to advise. I couldn’t hug her. Her problems were real and raw, not virtual at all. At first I thought, She needs more than a “virtual friend.” But then I realized she already considered me more than a virtual friend or she wouldn’t have called.

I did all I could. I listened. She needed to let things out, to be heard. I hope I was able to prop her up, if only briefly. As she does with most things in her life, she’s climbing her way through this difficulty with grace and dignity, equating the needs of others with her own, reminding me once again why I admire her so much.

I feel that somehow our online friendship has been validated; we’ve passed some sort of milestone or test. I apologize that my dating metaphor is wearing thin, but…engagement? We’ve moved on to the next stage; we are friends who are likely to remain so for a very long time.

And so, lesson learned: Don’t ever doubt that the friendships you’ve made on the internet are real. Whether you meet in person or not doesn’t matter. It’s always wonderful if you can, but it won’t change the realness of the friendship. I’m glad my friend texted and threw me off balance. I’m glad I could be there.

Even if I wasn’t really there.

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