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Can Internet Friends Ever Be Real Friends?

A defense of online intimacy.

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illustration of women sitting around a table on computers making friends virtually
Jade Schulz
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In 2012, I joined my first Facebook group, a networking group for bloggers. Up to that point, my only Facebook friends were people I knew in real life. A fellow blogger from the group, Meghan, sent me a private message asking if I’d be up for swapping writing critiques with her. I liked her writing, so I agreed, and we exchanged essays. My editing suggestions were sparse, reflective of my worry that if I pointed out every single flaw or speed-bumpy wording I found, I’d hurt her feelings. She sent my essay back dripping with red ink. I knew right then that I wanted to be friends with Meghan.

Over the course of the next year, Meghan and I connected with about 15 others in a similar manner, and we formed our own smaller side-group. This smaller group was still intended for professional development, but it was by nature more intimate, and we found ourselves sharing our personal lives with one another. We admitted frustrations with our husbands, fears for our children, and struggles with our own perceived inadequacies. In other words, we became friends.

I felt incredibly close with these women, even astonished by the level of camaraderie we seemed to have attained. Yet at the same time, I was incredulous. This couldn’t be real friendship, could it? I’d never met any of these women in person, and Meghan, my closest confidant, didn’t show her face online. She had become one of my favorite people in the world, and yet I didn’t know what she looked like or even what her voice sounded like.

According to many experts, in order to form a bond with someone, face-to-face interaction is a necessity. Touch — even casual, professional touch like handshaking — is said to build trust and promote cooperation. So how to explain that heart-swelling feeling I kept getting every time someone in my online group needed emotional support and we lifted her up? Why did I feel so much warmth and gratitude when one of these women forwarded me a money-making opportunity because she knew it was “perfect” for me? How could these virtual friendships feel so valuable and, well …real?

When it comes to making friends in person, I can be shy. A few bad experiences of being judged after having let my guard down taught me to be cautious with new people. The internet felt safer — it offered a natural buffer between me and those who might judge me. If someone online doesn’t approve of my quirky nerdy side or my proclivity for trashy erotica, that’s just fine. It’s not like I’ll run into them at the local farmers market and get caught under their critical stare.

And yet, paradoxically, with online friends, there also is no buffer at all. Take away the fear that you might wind up trapped in a social circle with someone who clearly dislikes you, and suddenly you’re free to share things you ordinarily wouldn’t. Online, if someone finds something objectionable about you, you are quite free to never see or hear from them ever again.

But are these online friendships real? Since befriending this group of women via Facebook, I’ve met most of them in person. We meet at the occasional conference or girls’ weekend and melt into each other’s arms, often shedding tears of happiness and gratitude. We laugh until we can’t breathe, and sleep only enough to function. We don’t want to miss a minute.

So, yes, online friendships are absolutely real. If anything, our in-person connections have been cemented by our years of unfettered online disclosures. And I know we’re not the only ones. Maybe you have an online group of friends that has become dear to you, too. Maybe you know it’s possible to love and cherish someone you’ve never met in person. And maybe, like me, all the research in the world couldn’t convince you otherwise.