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The nature of online friendships

When I know someone only online I can reveal more of myself, get to a more intimate place sooner, than with an in-person relationship. But the other side is that there is an element of unreality in the friendship, which makes it vulnerable to destruction. I think we can give up on these friendships more easily. A misplaced comment can lead to major misunderstandings that sometimes never get straight. In the heat of the moment this can mean the friendship is terminated. It feels callous to me.

The passionate, emotionally-charged person writes, "You are no longer my friend" or "Get out of my life". Or simply refuses all further correspondence. This is bad enough. Worse, though, it seems, is the person who accepts being cut off with an "Oh well", and moves on.

I have been that person. I have been cut off and have shrugged and gone on with barely a ripple. Not at first, though.

The first time it happened, many years ago, I was devastated. I did not understand what had happened. Someone who had been corresponding with me, who had become what seemed to be a close friend, suddenly stopped, no warning. I was so concerned that I even tried to track him down in other ways. I was able to confirm that he was the professor of comparative literature that he said he was, at the University of Montreal, but didn't find a phone number or other means of contact. I finally realized that if there had been a plane crash (he was supposed to be flying to France, was going to bring me a scarf) that I would have heard about it. I finally realized that he was simply done with talking to me.

It happened a few more times, somewhat different circumstances, generally not super-close friends. And then it happened here in LJ for the first time. Or, I should say, the friend came from here. He wrote in my journal, we struck up a friendship, got to writing long involved emails to each other.

We were so close that I once remarked that we seemed like two parts of the same person. He replied, no, the same parts. Then, later, I reacted somewhat negatively to something he wrote and he cut me off. Not a word. Kicked me off his friends list, did not return my email. I wrote again when I realized what he had done, said I had no good idea what I had done, was sorry it caused such a reaction, that I would like to continue to be friends. When I received no reply I dropped it. I took him off my friends list, too, and never again attempted correspondence.

It seemed clingy to keep trying. I wonder, sometimes, though, would he have responded eventually, if I had been more persistent? I will never know and this speaks volumes about me, that I was not willing to try.

Another LJ friend kicked me off, let me back on, kicked me off again. Volatile creature! I was forever watching my words, censoring myself, never quite able to be what this person seemed to want me to be. Just being honest and myself and reacting directly was not it. Thus, although this person was and is an intelligent, very interesting, creative, and in many ways supportive person, ultimately I felt I didn't need the roller coaster ride.

More, I was unable to involve myself as fully in this other life as I might had we been real-life friends. I feel this is what makes these friendships vulnerable, for me anyway. There isn't enough of an investment.

I am now to the point where I no longer am willing to tiptoe around to protect a friendship. I feel that if it is to be a real friendship it has to be subjected to various ups and downs and misunderstandings and emotional outbursts, just as in real life. I realize that making such a commitment to an online friend makes me that much more emotionally open, which is a good thing, makes me more likely to get hurt, of course. And yet. Will the hurt last as long as it would when a real-life friend cuts me off?

I have a friend who seems to have cut me off. A real-life friend. But it may not be that. It may be just being too busy, too occupied with other things. I don't know. If I have been cut off I have absolutely no idea why. I think being in a state of unknowing, in this case, protects me from feeling too hurt. Also, though, I think keeping up friendships is a lot of work, and part of me may well be thinking, "oh well"...


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 17th, 2003 08:04 am (UTC)
I don't have such experiences at all. I don't have email friends...except one I knew in person who moved away. Getting that close online could put tension in one's life...if one has relationships at home, especially a partner. This is speculation on my part, and wondering why people do drop off, cut you off, etc.

I have gotten closer to my friends over the years. But getting to intimate spaces has taken time. There are times when we have no intimacy at all, but when something happens that is important, we have a base for getting intimate because we have built up trust through the day-to-dayness of our lives. For example, one of my friends separated from her partner. So recent conversations have been quite intense. Another friend does intense psychotherapy work as a living. Not with me! We spend evenings playing Scrabble! We are fed by the relaxation together.

But I do not encourage intimacy. I have to work at it to get there. It is more solidly in me, more easy to access, than before, but not something I start with, at all. I am more comfortable in my more professional role these days. If I strike up a conversation and it gets close and intimate, I resist any expectations for something else; in fact, I am the one who does not feed it. I was getting close to a friend at work who was bright and struggling and it really felt there was no room to have a friendship even tho I really liked her. She had too many pressing challenges and rightly so, I thought, she needed to focus on them. They included being a single parent with two young kids. I decided not to pursue the friendship because it was not about having fun together, it was about listening to her struggles. I was happy, from time to time, to do that, but it wasn't a friendship if that was all there was.

I did lose a good friend several years ago. I had not kept up my side. I did not call her, spend time with her. She finally decided she did not want to see me anytime. It was during a very difficult part of my life where my partner was very ill and I did not have the bandwidth to keep up this friendship. At least that was how I saw it. She later told me she would have been willing to support me, but by then it was too late. That one did hurt.
Aug. 17th, 2003 11:09 am (UTC)
Re: Wow
I think you are right about the time and energy investment. It is the same thing with online friendships as with real-life, that if you are there for the little things, however inconvenient, then you tend to be a better friend. For the most part, we don't invest in our online relationships to the extent that we *can* (but don't always) in real life. The day-to-day experiences, I believe, are very important in the building of trust. Not to mention, of course, the ability to read body language and tone of voice.

I feel we do indeed have to be careful about choosing our friendship levels. We have to be prepared to give the time and energy, and if we are not ready to do so we should not imply that we are. So I think you are right to be careful that way.
Aug. 17th, 2003 09:59 am (UTC)
Very insightful post, Judith.
I have found a plethora of lying snakes in the online world and have become much more guarded. I befriended one woman who recreated herself to suit the person she was talking to.
When my sister died of cancer and I had a bout with it myself, this online "friend" told me she had cervical cancer and was moving home to start treatment. She had let it go on for a long time and I was so worried about her. I shared a very personal side of myself with her and about my sister. I later found out it was all a scam. When I confronted her later she played victim and got her close online buddies to lie for her and say she was out of remission and I needed to leave her alone because she was sick. Two people that knew her in person laughed at me and said she often made up things to feel accepted. I felt so foolish and betrayed. How people like her can enjoy life is beyond me.
Aug. 17th, 2003 11:04 am (UTC)
That's really sucky. I don't believe I have had an equivalent experience. I think, for the most part, people I meet are honest, although they often deceive themselves.

I don't find online friends to be, as a group, more deceitful than in-person friends, except for this desire to be liked, to be accepted, which causes some odd things at times.

I met a guy online who lives in this area. We became attracted to each other through our emails and he invited me to his place for a night. I came over, we talked, we fucked, I made soup. Then he got on his computer. He was first showing me some pages he had created for someone, then he showed me his "talkers". I don't know many people who use talkers but they seem pretty much addicted when they do. It's a community, if you don't know, where people can join, leave messages for others, chat with others.

He got into a conversation with one of his friends on this talker, was sympathizing, saying all the right things, patting her on the back, blah blah blah...right in front of me, who could have been a block of wood for all he noticed.

It struck me that he was this kind, empathetic, supportive person online but in person he wasn't so "accessible". I think a lot of people have these kinds of "intimacy issues". They can play the part in words but to involve their whole selves is something else. I tend to get irritated when someone applauds their online friends for all the support they have provided: we provide that support when it is convenient for us and at no other time. That's not my definition of real support.

Funny thing, later that night: he was struggling with something he had done on the web site he had created, couldn't figure out what he'd done wrong. I looked at it and came up with the answer. The thing that had attracted him to me in the first place was obviously my intelligence, and this got him again. We went from the computer to the bedroom.

This was one of those eye-opening things, overall. Especially about online personas.
Aug. 17th, 2003 05:59 pm (UTC)
At the risk of sounding like an egotistical bastard (who? me?) who thinks not it's-all-about-me, but who actually hopes (actually yes, hun I stick with that word) that *some* of it-is-about-me. So, er... is this in some way related to our recent exchange. And again - i will not ever defriend you. And that is not for you, it is for me. I want that you and me can work out on-line whatever is agoing on.

Oh, and right now l really really need your care and support because my little freudslip on that forum (will explain soon) has meant that a line has been crossed.

Oh ... and to really serious stuff. Hey - Nikons and Leicaflexes don't rust, you must know that - they'll outlast you and me. And when they conk then somewhere in the world, findable through the Web, there will be some person with puter-controlled lathes who will make the spares. Those are not your eelectronik shit - they are real cameras.

There is no choice. Use 'em. Which Nikon btw?

They are beautiful - true artworks. Feel the heft, hear the clunk. They do what you want. Drool, drool.
Aug. 17th, 2003 06:18 pm (UTC)
Last first. Yes, I do know these cameras don't rust and I love them the way you do, I believe. I love the feel, the sound, everything.

I have a Nikon FE and a Leicaflex, don't know a model number.

What's cool about the digital revolution is that it's possible to find these real cameras for much less money these days. I passed up the chance to grab another Nikon with lenses and other equipment for $100 recently because right at that time I didn't have the money. I could kick myself, but I expect to find others.

I am becoming fond of the digital cameras, though. But learning their limitations, so when I buy one myself I'll have a better idea.

Perhaps ego-centric but yes, the post was motivated by our recent exchange. I have, of course, thought a lot about these relationships and how easily they go south, and am so done with that. I am so glad that you are as willing as I am to keep at it.

I am here to offer support in the admittedly limited way that I have. I care a lot about you and honestly do feel a lurch when I think about your being in pain. I gather that your bluster does indeed cover for some rather jello-like stuff inside... and we'll talk more about all that, of course.
Aug. 17th, 2003 06:37 pm (UTC)
my 'bluster' - hey watch your language! What am i blustering about? I thought I was being pretty clear about my jellostuffy! i aint' covering up with no damn brit stiffupperlippy. Me - I'm a californian - orange county, me want slipperyslithy with Linda Hamilton.

If I was bin more open I'd be inside-out, and be one o them Escher impossible objects.

Oh, have I told you I have a Leica M2 - well I do, and the shutter is so silky smooth and the focus ..... If you ask me nice I might let you play with it. ;-)
Aug. 17th, 2003 06:47 pm (UTC)
Don't make me beg!!

My mommy had an M2...lovely little thing...sigh...

Linda Hamilton. You could do worse. Good choice.

I'll be back. (reference to someone who played opp. L.H....)
Aug. 17th, 2003 06:57 pm (UTC)
Honey - I would really just so love for you to beg.

'I'll be back' ? Never underestimate my ignorance. My references are v patchy. Is it Arnie?
Aug. 17th, 2003 07:32 pm (UTC)
Sometimes I think I'm losing my sexual self but when you say that, about begging, there it is...

so thank you for that!

Yes, Arnie. My references are usually very sketchy as well, and it is something of a fluke that I had actually seen two of the Terminators. Not that I remember everything, but I remember Linda's buffed self especially and Arnie's horrific accent.

Oh yeah, and the Saturday Night Life spoof: The Tooncinator. One of my faves.

Aug. 18th, 2003 06:31 am (UTC)
Judith...don't compromise your integrity and dignity.
Stick to your guns, woman...I know a snake when I see it writhering across the screen.
Aug. 18th, 2003 11:24 am (UTC)
I have a tendency to compromise my dignity and integrity all through my journal!

Aug. 18th, 2003 04:28 pm (UTC)
'buffed self' - is this re buffy? - me,o I just like muscly gals with guns.
Aug. 20th, 2003 04:44 pm (UTC)
Actually no. Linda Hamilton was SO buffed in Term II.
Aug. 20th, 2003 07:41 pm (UTC)
'buffed' - talk to me in engleesh pleeese. I really truly and honestiferously do not know wot this is meaning of.
Aug. 20th, 2003 08:38 pm (UTC)
"Buffed" just means muscled, like Arnold or Stallone. Hamilton did a lot of weight training for that film and it showed. Of course I am sure you noticed.
Aug. 21st, 2003 02:54 am (UTC)
got it - yes I did notice, esp those biceps (top of arms? yes?) - in that cute vest as she's checking out the M16.
Aug. 20th, 2003 03:15 pm (UTC)
A most interesting and thought provoking post. I find it curious that one can become very close to a person one has never actually met. I wonder what it is that makes us more willing to reveal more of ourselves on line. Maybe part of it is the relative anonymity. And although many of these friendships do require a lot of emotional investment, it is strange how easily they can be terminated. Strange and sad. We do become close to our on line friends, particularly over time, and yet some can quite callously finish the friendship with no offer of an explanation. Fortunately, so far, I don't write about this from experience, but it has happened to others. It has happened to you, and I'm sorry that it seems to happen in such an unfeeling way, with no means of redress.
There is a problem with negative reactions to e-mails or LJ posts etc., in that as we cannot see the person at the other end, we do not know what effect our words have on them. In an ordinary conversation, the misplaced or misinterpreted word can soon be explained, corrected. In an e-mail or post, the words just lie there. We have no idea how the recipient is reacting to them.
It's interesting what you say about the investment in on line friendships as opposed to what you term "real life friends", particularly in light of the fact that you say you get to a more intimate place sooner with these friendships.
I have found that I'm reluctant to share too much of myself on the pages of LJ, and I don't really have the time to strike up closer friendships. Also, I don't know why I feel unable to share much about myself. I often feel that because many of my LJ friends share so much of themselves, that I should do so too; that somehow this is an unequal relationship, that I am taking more than I'm giving. Then I have to remind myself that what I am reading about the lives of others, has been posted without prompting from me. I haven't asked for these intimate details of people's lives, they have been freely given to me. And I like that people who have never met me, are willing to share aspects of their lives with me, and I'm grateful to them, and to LiveJournal.
Just thinking a little more about this sharing business, I realize part of it may be that I share my troubles with my family, particularly my husband, and I think that once I've spoken to him about what is troubling me, I don't want to rehash it with someone else. I've talked about it, I've said what I want to say. I don't want (or need) to say it again. This applies to friends in "real life" as well as on line.
I could write more, and maybe one day I will - in my own LiveJournal.
I would like to add that often I want to respond to what you've written, but because of constraints of time and health, I'm not always able to do so. However, I know you understand this.
I will just finish by saying that I hope that whatever the problem is with the real-life friend you mention, it is resolved, and that the friendship continues, but if it does not, I hope you will not be too hurt by its demise.
Aug. 20th, 2003 04:41 pm (UTC)
You have described my feelings about the nature of these connections rather well. I do believe that sometimes we can get more intimate more quickly because we don't see each other and also because we write when we are inclined. That is, it's normally a good time for us, we're ready, we're focused. While in real life we are often caught off-guard and don't respond well or can be misread.

And yes, our words lie here, welcome or not, ready to be enlarged, blown up well out of proportion to their meaning, and causing offense when none is meant, or at least not as much. The two edges to that sword.

I have ended online friendships by not writing only when they had reached that kind of place, where it was rather like walking away, nothing more to say. Or else I have ended things that never had much of a start to begin with. I don't think I have ever not responded to someone who asked why. I would want to try to explain, even if it is difficult.

As for this real-life friend. Oddly enough, I saw her in a dream last night. She was very thin and attractive (she is normally overweight and frets about it - and attractive) and she snubbed me. I said to her, in my dream, that she looked wonderful. She didn't respond. I had no idea what she was upset about.

I rather doubt she's upset about anything. Like me, she gets involved in work and other things and sometimes friends don't get the attention they'd like. IF I were to walk in on her when she was home - I have tried, but she has not been home - I expect she would welcome me gladly.

And yet I have made several moves toward her and she has not reciprocated so I have become more reluctant to keep it up.

You are fortunate to have someone close you can talk to. I don't. This journal serves that purpose many times. I can talk to different people about different things at different times but in the end I often feel left with such a huge load that I need to get off me. I leave it here. Nobody else can make any sense of it.

I feel a great deal of relief when I can get some of my more coherent thoughts together in an essay and can get that online, on my web site. It's like ...what is it like? I have a sense of something like baking bread, too much, too many kinds, not enough customers for what I bake, so I offer it to the big anonymous but sometimes-hungry crowd. Every now and then someone takes a bite and says, "This is delicious!"

But enough of the metaphors for now!! Good grief.

I will say that although you may not be posting every day and dredging up silt from the corners of your life, as many of us do, that your posts are always thoughtful and insightful. Of course I've said that before. It's why I value your friendship.

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


Judith Lautner
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