Monday, July 27, 2009

Isn't social intimacy a contradiction in terms?

I like conversing with my 16 year old god son because he uses the computer completely differently from me or anyone else I know who is over 25. We had a massive debate about whether or not internet "friends" are really friends and whether you can ever really trust someone you only know in the virtual world. I feel strongly that they are not and that you cannot. Needless to day, he feels strongly that they are and you can. I was interested, therefore, to read a thoughtful account (versus a bun-throwing fest) of this same topic from Prestolee who feels that social networking sites like Twitter can help build intimacy.

There are lots of different kinds of relationships (casual, business, social, intimate) and we are best served not confusing them. One of my earliest, and most painful life lessons was to make a clear distinction between friends and "work friends". A "work friend", even if you are genuinely close at work, is not necessarily a friend. They do not necessarily hold you in the same esteem as a true friend, may not be open to having a drunken slobbering conversation at 3 am about your ex boyfriend, and may work very hard to get promoted before you do - even if it is at your expense. In short, they do not necessarily have your best interests at heart in the way a true friend does. But they are still a friend - of sorts.

The Germans have a great way of tackling this by using the formal "Sie" for social , casual and business relationships. If (and it could be after you have known someone for 25 years) you mutually decide that you would like to have an intimate relationship (in other words, to be friends) you will celebrate the fact by addressing each other by the informal "du" and by going out for lunch or dinner to confirm your new status as intimates. I actually think that is lovely and it certainly avoids any confusion about where your relationship stands.

Internet relationships (especially the ones on the websites most employers ban) are not intimate relationships. They are social, business, casual, or some combination of the three. By this, I am not suggesting that internet relationships are bad or shallow - just that they are limited and we should remember this. We may care about our virtual friends at some level and wish each other well. We may help each other find something or solve something, raise money for charity, or provide support and encouragement. But at the end of the day, we do not really know the people on the other end of the ether, nor they us. I am afraid, even after reading the thoughtful blog post, that I am sticking to my view. However, I absolutely concede that kindness and acknowledgement from people whether in person or on the internet, whether friends, contacts, or strangers is positive and makes us feel good about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves we are more likely to go out and do good for others, thus developing and building truly intimate relationships where virtue can continue to flourish.


  1. I think we are somewhat confined by language here. I used to say "real-life" and "online" friends to recognise the different nature of the relationships, but I think "offline" and "online" is better - since the people I know online are definitely real.

    The issue is more complicated by the flourishing offline social scene promoted by online interaction - "TweetUps" and other face-to-face events such as Tuttle Club and Ale_2point0: online friends have become offline friends.

    One of the things I have noticed is that when we meet someone now, we can very quickly find out a lot about them: knowledge that we used to acquire gradually is available on the internet. This can give the impression of intimacy - because we feel like we have known people for ages when we may just have met them recently face-to-face. (I think I'm off to write my own blog post about this...!)

  2. Sorry, I used the wrong URL for Tuttle Club - the correct URL is

  3. I think it is fantastic that online friends are becoming offline friends - what an great benefit of the internet. I think you are right though about the amount of info - no matter how much you have you cannot cycle compress the "getting to know you" part of a relationship (any relationship) because one of the critical components for trust is simply time...