Social networking sites are multiplying at an unprecedented rate. But who needs 100, or 1,000, friends? And what is the boundary between virtual and real world friendships?
This survey professes to reveal great truths about friendship in the digital age. It claims that 60% of online adults have formed a friendship with someone they have met online. But also that – shock horror – 3 in 4 have met their online friend in real-life. Adults worldwide have met an average of 13 online friends in person. Quite right too. The benefits of forming friendships online are obvious, so why is the idea treated with such contempt? I’ve made friends online I now consider real-life friends – mainly through blogging, and yet when I say this to people they look at me as if I’m a social misfit. As though faceless friends on the internet are not “real”.
Let’s not forget that human beings are social creatures. We seek to connect with people, and technology gives us abundant new ways to connect with lovely “real” people. The Internet is full of like-minded individuals, not just a bunch of oddballs. In the digital age, we’re now able to pinpoint friends by rounding up people with amazingly similar interests. Bucking this trend, by/association is a new social network with a difference. It seeks to eke out the ego-driven accumulation of strangers for the sake of hand-matching a ‘friends’ list. While some might say it’s elitist, others would say it’s a great way to forge genuine connections with like-minded people for friendship.
As our online connections continue to grow at unprecedented speed, is there a limit to how many friends we can practically manage? According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the human brain can only remember 150 meaningful relationships. While we obviously like the kudos of having hundreds (maybe thousands) of friends on Facebook, in truth we maintain ‘active’ relationships with an inner circle of no more than 150 people.
While the Internet allows us to make new connections like never before, it is also a means to improving existing friendships. According to this report, over two-thirds of people worldwide believe that the Internet actually improves relationships. Technologies such as IM and Facebook chat are being used to strengthen friendship bonds. And four-in-ten adults use webcams to interact with friends or family while online. It seems that in reality, we are more likely to stay connected with people in the digital world – with over half of adults claiming to have reconnected with a friend online.
Given the huge amount of time we spend online, there are misguided fears that we are becoming increasingly disengaged from real-life. Unsurprising to me, this survey proved quite the opposite. Heavy users of the Internet are in fact particularly socially active, having the highest number of friends both online and offline. I suspect that those with more friends use the Internet more often in order to keep connected and deepen relationships.
Call me naïve, but I’ll continue to convert virtual friends into real ones (and vice versa). That is, until I permanently morph into my digital self.