The value of online friendships

Today I told a lady whom I don’t know, that I hope she gets well soon. I don’t know anything about her life really, but I’ve been following her granddaughter’s blog for a while now.

I follow the adventures of a dog in another country whom I’m never likely to meet, but reading about her adventures makes me feel as though I know her.

I follow another account about dog rescues that often ends up with me in tears, but mostly for good reasons because they do a lot of wonderful work. Their videos help me to find out about that work and share it with others.

I have a group of bloggers whose posts I always check out. Some are more open about themselves, whereas others are more like me and find it harder to write about the personal stuff. But they all have something to say, and whereas with some of the other blogs that I read, I only click on the post if the title grabs my attention, there are some people whose posts I always read.

There are people in other parts of the world whose businesses are similar to mine. We help each other out. It’s maybe just a Skype call or a message of encouragement. Maybe it’s a comment on a social media post. Maybe it’s some practical help – there’s someone who posted something for my business in 2014 and it’s still generating interest even now!

I’m in a Facebook group where bloggers come together 2 or 3 times a week to actively support one another.

I’ve found people online who share my interests and who definitely know me better than the people with whom I spent 8 hours a day in our shared office.

For that matter, I had someone in Germany whom I’ve still never met giving me relationship advice and helping me with man problems, when most other people didn’t even know I had man problems. This was about a guy who was sacked a long time ago – just so that people don’t think I have man problems now!

So why do people say that the internet shuts us off from the world around us?

Ok, it can sometimes –the times when you’re having dinner with friends and they won’t put their phone away because they might miss something really important! That’s kind of annoying when you want to talk to them.

But when I think of my network in terms of the people with whom I communicate regularly – it stretches across continents and brings me in touch with people whom I never would have met without online communication.

I’m part of an online book club that was set up for people who might find it difficult to attend face-to-face meetings.

I do take part in real life meet-ups too, but with an online one, you don’t have to think about transport, medical issues or social energy levels, which means that people can take part who would otherwise have extra barriers and challenges to overcome.

I knew someone once who said online contacts don’t matter. They’re not like real people because you’ll never meet them. I found this really sad, in the original sense of the word. Sometimes people do say things online that they would never say in real life. Sometimes people do create a persona and make people believe they’re something other than they really are. Sometimes people lie. You can’t give an online friend a hug, take them to dinner or go for a shopping trip or a walk. But if you find people who think like you or who like the same things, who make you see the world in a different way or who inspire you to be a better version of yourself – isn’t that a good thing?

I have met people online who then became friends in real life. I met one of my first tandem learning partners in a business network, and we spent a couple of weeks together, in England and Germany, practicing our language skills, but also doing what friends do! Shopping, cooking together, cinema trips, nights in with a film, dog walking, horse-riding and generally having a laugh! I wrote more about my tandem partners in this podcast episode – and all of these friendships started online!

I also worked for an internet platform in Germany, gaining some really valuable experience, and making friends, whom I later visited in Germany.

Most of my customers are people whom I’ve never met in real life, although I have spent time with a couple of them when they came to London as you can read in my Tower of London Post.

Most of us no longer live in communities where people know everyone. Maybe this still happens in villages, but not in towns and cities. We’ll take in parcels for our neighbours, or say good morning. Sometimes the neighbours will go that extra mile to be helpful, like the guy who helped me remove someone’s cat that had sadly died under my picnic table, or the neighbour who always used to bring my bins in “because she was bringing hers in and it was no trouble”.

Of course there are exceptions, like the neighbour who introduced me to the man who was to become my future partner, but in my experience of living in big towns and cities, that’s not the general rule!

Most of the time, we’ll be polite enough when we see the people who live around us, but we don’t know who they really are in terms of what makes them happy, what they want out of life, or what they’re struggling with behind closed doors. But I could answer those questions about a lot of my online friends because I know them on a deeper level. Perhaps because I sought them out, rather than happening to live in the same locality.

A post that I read today was talking about community and I guess this is where the idea for this post came from. If we think about community in terms of local community, yes, I have friends locally and I think it’s always really important to do that. You can’t live your whole life online. It’s still important to get out there and meet people, or to have people nearby in case either of you need some help, company, cheering up, or ice-cream!

I know people in the community who perhaps aren’t my friends, but we share common interests. It’s good to meet up with them.

I used to meet a lot of people through work, but if you work from home and don’t meet customers face to face, you can’t guarantee a stream of new contacts and potential friends that way. This is why, when I moved to a new town, I joined local interest groups – but it didn’t change anything in terms of the online support network that I had already built up.

But if we take community to mean the wider community and all the people with whom you communicate regularly, in whatever way, I am actually really active in a vibrant and diverse community, and I have the internet to thank for much of that.

How about you? Are online friendships important to you, or do you think that you can’t class someone as a friend until you’ve met them in real life?

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