I have a friend I’ve never met. In this day and age, that’s normal. Plenty of us have friends we’ve only “met” on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Or perhaps, we’ve met them through some other online venue — a blog or a forum, for example — and struck up some kind of correspondence with them.
But I don’t even know my friend’s real name, e-mail or social media. I only know her Apple Game Center username. That’s because we only know each other from playing “Happy Street” together.
Happy Street is a bright, colorful world-building game in which players build shops and houses on a street, attracting residents and visitors. A big part of the gameplay comes from making friends who visit and send special items and tasks. Friends communicate via a mailbox. Happy Street is time-consuming for serious players, and conscientious players let friends know when they will be gone during busy times in live.
One day, I got a message from Junie B., who let me know she wouldn’t be visiting for awhile because she was getting married. Turned out, she’d be honeymooning at a beach town in Thailand I’d been to a few years earlier. So I sent her a quick note back — “Congratulations!” with a recommendation or two at the resort. I thought nothing more of it.
Weeks later, Junie sent me a message, thanking me for the suggestions. We exchanged a few more replies. This sort of back-and-forth usually peters out over time. But Junie and I have actually kept up a steady stream of messages for over a year, chatting about everything from app updates to the random life events that keep us from playing regularly at times.
Junie and I aren’t best friends by any stretch of the imagination — our friendship is more akin to the type of chit-chat that you’d exchange with a classmate, friendly acquaintance or neighbor. But people are surprised when I mention Junie. They’re used to the idea of people making friends over Facebook or Twitter, but they think it’s a bit odd over a smartphone game. But I’m not surprised, considering how connected we are in this day and age.
Technology is supposed to make life easier, and it’s made it easier to find friends and companions to suit all kinds of interests and needs in life. But technology and social media has also unexpected complications upon relationships, and friendship is no exception, as people navigate a set of demands peculiar to technology.
Junie and I aren’t close, but I’ve had other relationships that evolved from the Internet to become close, emotionally intimate friendships. I’ve met good friends back in the day via Livejournal and Friendster. I’ve also made friends on Twitter, which led to valuable professional and personal opportunities. In these cases, acquaintances that began online evolved into real-life associations that resemble traditional friendships.
Online relationships are the latest to fall under the umbrella of “friendship.” We can have work friends, friendly acquaintances, activity partners, “bromances,” frenemies — the spectrum of friendship is endless, reflecting our different needs, boundaries and comfort levels with intimacy. We may enjoy a more casual, light relationship with co-workers, for example, since our jobs might have a level of competition beneath them, or enjoy some witty banter with our bowling league or card game buddies. But we expect more from our good friends: we expect understanding, empathy and cameraderie. And sometimes we expect to see that kind of “friendship maintenance” demonstrated online, especially for younger generations.
College student Miranda, for example, told me she lost her best friend at school over different social media participation levels. “A lot of people in my generation are really gung-ho over Instagram or whatever the latest social media thing is, but I’m just not wired that way,” she says.
Still, that didn’t stop her from making friends when she first got to college, particularly with a girl who lived down the hall in her freshman dorm. She and Taryn had a lot in common and shared the same sense of humor, going everywhere together the first semester. But Taryn was an avid Instagrammer and very active on Facebook. “She was always glued to her iPhone,” Miranda says.
Miranda didn’t mind how invested Taryn was in social media — until Miranda hooked up with a boy and Taryn made a joke about it over Facebook. “It wasn’t like she said my name or said anything explicit, but anyone who knew both of us at school knew the joke was about me,” Miranda says.
Miranda got upset about it, and tried to bring it up with Taryn, asking her to delete the post. Taryn complied but defended herself, saying it was just a joke. The discussion escalated to a full-blown fight. “One thing led to another, and suddenly some dam burst and she was telling me how upsetting it was to her that I never liked anything she put on Facebook and Instagram, and how it looked bad that her best friend didn’t even like her stuff on social media,” Miranda says. “I was flabbergasted, like, ‘Really? This really makes me a bad friend?’ But in her mind it did.”
It sounds catty — Miranda certainly thinks so — but Taryn’s point of view, though arguably immature, is understandable for many who live much of their lives online. As we invest more of our emotional energy and identities into our online lives, we want others to reciprocate that investment. And when it isn’t reciprocated in the way we wish, we’re disappointed, like we would be in any other relationship.
Taryn and Miranda’s relationship was never the same after their dust-up. Miranda says she tried to be more active on social media for Taryn’s sake but “it felt fake,” she said. “So finally I just had to accept the fact that we were fundamentally incompatible in this respect, though that just blows my mind.” The two drifted apart.
But there are still emotional repercussions for Miranda. “It sounds silly, but the whole conflict with Taryn really hurt,” Miranda admits. “It bothered me more than some of my breakups with guys.”
Miranda is embarrassed by how much the dissolution of her friendship with Taryn bothers her, but she shouldn’t be. Even before the advent of Instagram and Facebook, friendship has been shown to be as complicated, evolved and intense as its romantic and familial counterparts. According to Carlin Flora’s book “Friendfluence,” friends help us in sharpening our minds, knowing ourselves better, reaching our goals, advancing our careers and meeting romantic partners. Friendships — and strong social networks in general — help us live longer, healthier lives.
For example, if your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself, according to Gallup senior scientist Tom Rath in his book “Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without.” Friendship is more than five times as important as physical intimacy within marriage, according to Rath. Those with “best friend at work” are seven times more likely to feel engaged in their job. Rath even explored the role of friendship in homelessness, noting that many homeless people cited weak friendships, communities and social ties as the main reason their lives’ stability collapsed from beneath them.
For women especially, friendship even has palpable health benefits. Spending time with female friends bonding and talking allows women to release more oxytocin, a hormone that promotes close feelings of togetherness. Both genders produce oxytocin, but oxytocin’s interaction with estrogen in particular helps combats stress for women and promotes a calm, centered feeling in them, according to a landmark UCLA study.
Despite friendship’s importance to our lives and well-being, we don’t devote as much energy to cultivating it in comparison to other relationships like family and romance, which garner the lion’s share of attention of both laypeople, scientists and researchers alike.
That’s changing with the rise of social networks. Services like Facebook now create pools of big data that provide researchers with insight into all kinds of relationships. Social networks also give us the tools to make and maintain friendships more easily than ever, especially what sociologists called “weak tie” friendships such as work friendships, activity partners and class acquaintances.
Weak ties are often the most fragile and tenuous of our friendships, and we traditionally don’t invest as much effort in maintaining them. Despite their relative weakness, though, weak-tie friendships have surprisingly strong benefits. Weak tie relationships are more useful than our close friends or family in sharing and learning certain kinds of information, according to sociologist Mark Granovetter in his classic 1973 essay “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Weak-tie relationships can tell us what companies are hiring and what they’re looking for in job candidates, for example, or help you find long-lost buddies or contacts.
We once cultivated weak-tie relationships through old-fashioned networking events and get-togethers — think old boys’ network gatherings over drinks and cigars at a local university club, for instance. In order to reap the benefits of weak-tie relationships, we needed to put some real effort into them — sending out annual Christmas cards, for instance, or making it a point to get together for lunch now and then.
Facebook and Twitter make it easy to strengthen, organize and maintain weak tie relationships with relative ease and convenience. We can keep up with that old internship buddy from 10 years ago or the friend-of-a-friend you met at a wedding who worked in the same field as you — simply by friending them on Facebook, sending a message or commenting on their statuses every now and then and liking their posts here and there.
The gestures we make on networks — likes, comments, posts — are simple and easy, but the payoff in stronger casual ties is invaluable. They can pay off in getting valuable intel on potential job applications, helping to meet romantic partners, keeping us in the know of the latest in pop culture, business or other fields or simply making us laugh with the latest viral kitten video. The triumph of Facebook as a social network is how it puts weak tie friendships on par with their stronger counterparts.
But as weak ties have strengthened, it’s made closer ties more complicated, especially when lines blur. For one thing, conducting a friendship online can bring out sides of a close friend we haven’t seen before, especially if they’re a chronic oversharer or humblebragger.
Or, we might simply come across information that changes our perception of someone for the worse. “I made the mistake of becoming friends on Facebook with a good work friend,” says Bethany, a 39-year-old office manager in Chicago. “We were lunch buddies and confided in each other about our families and laughed over our favorite TV shows at work, but on Facebook I realized her politics were completely different than mine — and expressed pretty rabidly. It was a mistake to try to go beyond the clear boundaries at work.”
On the other end, friendships can cool off over a lack of social media activity as well, as Miranda discovered with Taryn. If a friend is active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but another friend isn’t, the difference can create perceived conflicts over perceived indifference.
Kaitlyn, a 26-year-old New York social worker, describes herself as “hyper-active” on social media — she’s always posting, blogging and putting pictures up, and she loves commenting and replying to her friends. Yet she feels hurt when other friends of hers don’t reciprocate. “I know it’s a little childish, but I put a lot of effort into my social accounts, and some of my own friends doesn’t even like or comment on anything,” she says. “One friend I have — one I’d consider close — didn’t even comment on my wedding pictures when I put them online. She sent me an e-mail a few weeks later, which made me feel better, but those few weeks went by and I felt slighted. I know she’s not really active on Instagram or Facebook, so it’s not just me, but social media is the main way I keep up with people. Sometimes I feel if our friendship even meant anything to her, she’d put in the effort as well.”
That’s the tricky part of closer friendships — we invest more in them, and we expect more, and that seems to include social media for many people now. A basic tenet of relationship psychology draws a parallel between investing in a relationship and adding to a bank account. Spending time together, offering help or support or keeping in touch are like making deposits into any kind of relationship. But fights, slights, passive-aggressive insults or other bad behavior make “withdrawals” from that account — and some behaviors, like betrayal or backstabbing, can put a relationship irrevocably into the red. Within this metaphor, making online gestures of friendship seems to be an easy, simple way of boosting a relationship’s value.
But are social media-based gestures like Facebook likes and comments really investments into our closer friendships? All signs point to no. In fact, studies after studies show that despite the rise of social networks, we still have the same — or even fewer — number of close friends, according to ABC News. People might put time and energy into their social networking sites, but research shows social networking doesn’t usually translate to a larger offline network or closer offline relationships with network members, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Why is this so? The answer lies in the type of “social capital” that online networking and social media builds. Social capital is an elastic term used by sociologists, but it often refers to the resources you have access to through your relationships, whether it’s connections, knowledge or examples of best practices and behavior. When a neighbor or friend starts up their own business, for example, their know-how and experience — and the very fact that they can do it — is a kind of social capital you can draw upon.
Social capital is essential to human life — it has been shown to boost public health, create more efficient financial markets and even lower crime rates, according to Michigan State University researchers. Without social capital — and the strong networks that create and maintain it — communities can fall into social malaise and disorder.
Different kinds of relationships build different kinds of social capital. We build “bonding” social capital within our close relationships, and this kind of capital is enduring — it’s based on shared values and norms, and gives us a nourishing sense of community. It’s the kind of social capital that will keep your head above water when life’s circumstances become rough — you’ll carry this capital with you all your life, giving you a sense of identity and history and providing continuity between your past, present and future. It’s based on real understanding and empathy, and it’s best built through time, in-depth discussions and and working through challenge and adversity together. You can maintain bonding social capital on a network like Facebook, but the real work of building this kind of community can’t be abridged through likes, status updates or comments.
With social networking and other types of online relationships, we often create “building” social capital, which allows us to expand our networks, though not deepen them. This kind of capital tends to make connections between different groups of people who don’t necessarily share the same values or experiences as you; it also helps information and ideas spread farther and wider than they would in closer-knit, more intimate communities.
But human beings can’t thrive on just information and ideas alone, and when faced with a crisis, most people will find their weak ties offer limited help or understanding — or worse, retreat into the virtual woodwork. Glen, a 40-year-old engineer, found this to be true when he dealt with a family illness recently. “I posted a lot about my dad’s struggles with pancreatic cancer, which came on suddenly and took its course pretty rapidly,” he says. “I’ve been active on Facebook for awhile, and I usually tend to post funny things that gets lots of likes. But when I posted on my dad, I was a little weirded out that the response wasn’t nearly as strong. Maybe I was too emotional, I don’t know. People offered supportive words here and there, but those mostly came from the people I already knew in real life.”
As Glen discovered, the weak ties that social networks strengthen aren’t a substitute for the real sustenance of true fellowship and community. “It made me realize that a friend you make and maintain on Facebook isn’t quite what you think,” he said. “And maybe subconsciously I was expecting more than I should have.”
In some ways, social networks, if taken out of proportion and embraced to an extreme, give us the illusion of a real tapestry of friendship in our lives. And because we can access them any time and anywhere, we can fool ourselves into thinking they’re much more present in our emotional lives than they actually are.
Yet in the end, when it comes to the real benefits of friendships — the feeling of being truly known and accepted by someone, support, understanding, empathy and a shoulder to lean or cry on when needed — there is no tech-enabled shortcut. Closer friendships — the ones that help us grow and develop as human beings and give us emotional sustenance over time — can be maintained over social media, but they still require time and effort to cultivate. Whether it’s over e-mail, Skype or an old-fashioned cup of coffee, we still need to put time into sharing ourselves, listening to others, and offering support and understanding.
And sometimes that might also mean leaving a thoughtful comment here or there on some Facebook photos, especially as online and mobile networks assert their presence in our emotional lives. But for most of us, it may be best to think of Twitter, Facebook and the like as a fun cocktail party or water cooler to drop in on, or a fun barbeque to gather at and exchange jokes and information — but trying to eke out more substantive emotional sustenance from them is a recipe for unnecessary drama.
I don’t know if my friendship with Junie will ever really evolve into anything more — I’ve reached the point in my life where my family and romantic relationships command the lion’s share of my time and attention, and it’s hard to put in the time to cultivate new close friendships, especially when I don’t want my older friendships to suffer. And Junie hasn’t made any overtures, either — we’re both apparently content with having a friendly acquaintance with one another, maintained through a common affection for a silly iOS game. And that’s fine — in life, it’s great to have a patchwork of different types of friendships, as long as we’re aware of the weight and importance each friendship merits. ♦