Friendship: Physical and Virtual

Some musings on a semi-formed idea for a paper:

The idea that there is something fundamental that distinguishes traditional modes of interaction from their newer, technologically mediated counterparts is widespread.  I am not sure that it is defensible.  In the context of friendship, the idea seems to be that something is missing from online ‘friendships’, which is present in non-technologically mediated friendships, and that something constitutes the necessary core of what it means to have a ‘real’ friendship.  Accordingly, friendship is something that cannot be established without the (intimacy?  proximity? something) of meatspace interaction.

This seems to be rubbish.  Here is why:  For any claimed feature of meatspace friendships, that is said to be shared by all of them and lacking in all virtual ‘friendships’, there seem to be actual, as opposed to merely hypothetical counterexamples.  At this stage, this point is not fully cashed out, and I think maybe I could come up with a rule that avois all the traipsing through particulars, but for now, some examples.


I have good real world friends who I haven’t seen in years.  Some of these I also seldom catch up with in virtual worlds.  From the opposite perspective, I have friends I have never met, with whom I spend far more time than I do with any but the closest of my meatspace friends.  We inhabit a shared, persistent virtual world multiple times a week, for hours at a time. 

Virtual friendships are not anonymous.  The closer ones are mediated through mechanisms like ventrilo and skype, and forged through shared experiences in the way of physical friendships.  Similarly, the opportunities for deception, mistrust, and the undermining of friendships exist as much virtually as they do physically. 

I also think there is an ambiguity played on betweens enses of the word friend.  In the strong sense, it means more than mere acquaintance.  It means someone whose absence you would genuinely notice and care about.  In the weak sense, it just indicates that you have some passing knowledge of a person.  The weak sense is popularised by online social media, and used by various reports on online friendship as synonymous with the strong sense in the physical realm.  I think there needs to be a recognition that both virtually and physically, each of these sense of the term friend is operating.  As long as you compare strong virtual to strong physical friendships, the similarities outweigh the differences.  Differences are peripheral to the concept of friendship, while the similarities attach to the core characteristics.

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