Friendships In The Age of Social Media

Once upon a time, I was a teensy bit paranoid.

I used to break out in a cold sweat if someone I didn’t know sent me a friend request on Facebook. If it was a friend of a friend, I’d track down our mutual acquaintance to determine whether they were a serial killer. But even if I got confirmation the requestor was not a complete psychopath, 90 percent of the time I’d still ignore or delete the request.

Then I joined Twitter.

I cannot tell you how long I agonized over that decision. But I was determined to help save my favorite show (Timeless), and Facebook was getting me nowhere. The anxiety I felt when I realized that ANYBODY could follow me, was more than I’d care to admit.

Then something happened: I made friends with strangers.

I don’t know how it happened; I certainly didn’t expect it to. But by jumping on that platform every day to do my duty as a loyal Clockblocker, I met others who shared my interests, my passions, and even my anxieties.

This was more than tweeting about a TV show. This was building relationships with people all over the world. Suddenly, I was in a support group of sorts, each of us cheering one another on through our frustrations, our victories, and our real life problems.

I had found my people and as a result, I kind of found myself. I’d always been an introvert who never really took risks. But I found myself meeting Twitter friends for dinner if we were visiting the same city. If you’d told me I would be doing that just a year ago, I’d’ would’ve said you were crazy.

Stranger danger is a real thing, folks!

Taking that terrifying leap into the unknown to meet online friends in person, however, has made my life much richer.  Most of the people I have met, have been beautiful, gracious souls whom I would never have known without the advent of social media.

That said, there are very real risks to online relationships. We all see it all the time in the news. Cyberstalking, cyberbullying, catfishing… these are real and serious potential hazards.

While social media has allowed for more people to connect across the continents, the jury seems split on whether these online friendships actually hinder or help our social relationships in general.

The Research

A 2016 study by Oxford University professor Robin Dunbar found people can only maintain about 150 stable social relationships. This is due largely to restraints on our available time. There just aren’t enough minutes in our day to foster and cultivate good old-fashioned relationships with every single one of our real-life and online “friends.”

But 150 seems like a big number, right?

Well, consider that it includes family, co-workers, associates and friends, and that number seems to diminish a bit. Dunbar found that only about four of those 150 can be considered dependable. And only about 14 will express sympathy during a crisis.

Yikes.

Many of us in this age of social media claim more than 150 followers/friends. But Dunbar’s research shows it doesn’t make a lick of difference. The number of people considered to be “close and reliable” by the respondents really didn’t change. That number has stayed pretty solid since the General Social Survey (GSS) collected data on this way back in 1985. Back then,  responders claimed to have a whopping three confidants. When asked again in 2004, after the advent of social media, that number dropped to two.

That drop is interesting, considering how we tend to rank the quality of our online lives to the number of followers we have or the number of likes we receive. But it also shows that by limiting our face to face interactions, our real life relationships have been affected.  Granted, it’s not a huge change, but there are countless studies and articles that have proven the importance of face to face interaction in building trust.  When talking with someone in person, you pick up on non-verbal cues, tone, inflection and that in turn, helps to build a trust and rapport that you don’t get digitally.

Age Matters

It shouldn’t be surprising that teenagers embrace social media friendships more readily than most. They were raised on them. Dunbar’s research shows teenagers use social media as a means to meet new people. The number of online friends/followers correlates closely to their “social attractiveness.”  Remember when all we had to worry about was being popular in high school? This generation has to be popular online too.

Older people, by contrast, are more likely to use social media as a means to stay in touch with old friends and acquaintances. That’s not to say older people can’t and don’t make friends online. We’re just more likely to send creeps packing off of our virtual online lawns.

That’s an important distinction. Dunbar found children and teenagers are less discriminating than adults in defining friendships. So, when they get those random friend requests, it doesn’t necessarily send them into a state of panic…like say it would, me. Instead, they welcome it… because it makes them feel accepted and increases their social attractiveness (popularity).

Older people don’t have time for that nonsense.

Adults apparently understand, more so than the younger crowd, that trust and communication are vital to establishing and maintaining genuine friendships. And we also know — or should know, it’s a two way street– that liking someone’s post or throwing out a random comment on a tweet isn’t true friendship. That’s what acquaintances do in real life. Building a relationship of trust, maintaining that trust, and taking the time to cultivate and grow that relationship? That’s what friends do.

Still, even if you have those genuine friendships online and in real life, it doesn’t mean they will always remain. Life happens. People grow apart. Trust is betrayed. But inevitably, others will come along and take their place. According to Science Daily, we all lose our network of close friends every seven years.

But once again, social media has allowed us to stay more connected to people from our past than was possible two decades ago. Their roles in our lives might change from close confidant to online buddy, but they are still a part of our social circle and our lives.

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Ninety percent of Americans use a social media networking site… or sites to connect themselves to people across the globe and promote their ideas.

Social media gives users a chance to present themselves– their very best selves– to the world. So it’s not shocking to discover discrepancies between people’s online and real life personas. We play to our audience, as it were.

Even across social platforms, our personalities tend to change.  According to a study by Pennsylvania State University, we present ourselves differently on Facebook than we do Twitter, or Instagram.  Why?  So that we can fit in.

Many times, this is harmless. I once read a blog article about the danger of envying others on social media. If memory serves, the author was a photographer who took photos for her friends. One such friend hired a woman to come in and decorate a birthday cake, then had the photographer come in and photograph it. Then she Instagrammed the picture as her own.

Nice, right?

Nobody wants to be lied to or feel like they’ve been manipulated, but don’t we all do it… just a little bit?  According to this article, we do.  I know I’ve taken pictures of my kitchen creations that looked a hell of a lot better on Facebook than what they actually were in real life.

Once, it was a set of Easter cupcakes topped with Peeps. They were freaking adorable and got lots of likes and comments. But what I didn’t show were the half dozen burned ones sitting in the trash can. My status as “domestic goddess” (that is, in itself, a big fat lie) was preserved in the minds of my online friends. But in reality, my kitchen reeked of smoke and charred cupcake wrappers.

That, however, is completely different than presenting a false self altogether. We all know the tales. Catfishers who create an online persona to trick, manipulate and ensnare the naive online. Until two years ago, I believed catfishers were just sexual predators or scammers looking to swindle some unsuspecting person out of their life savings.

Turns out that’s not accurate at all.

In the documentary Catfish, Nev Schulman discovers a woman he had been in an online relationship with for almost a year was actually fake. He was a victim of social catfishing, a phenomenon that seems to be gaining a bit of traction. According to Phys.org, social catfishing will become a growing problem in this generation. Many times, it doesn’t come initially from malice. Forty-one percent of catfishers interviewed said they did it because they were lonely.  Others said they had faked their online personas because they had self-esteem issues. They developed a false identity to pretend to be the type of person they wished to be.

While it’s terribly sad anyone should feel compelled to create fake personas to build relationships with others, it highlights a very real risk in social media. Who is really behind the screen name? Can you fully trust that person? Do they even exist?

That is why the argument remains that online relationships are not as genuine as those in real life.

Be Responsible

Social media friendships can be truly amazing things. Whether its connecting with people across the globe or across the country, online friendships allow us to “meet” and “talk” with people we wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’d like to think that most of us are honest, decent people who are looking to engage with others who share the same interests.

While that’s not always the case online, sadly, the same can be said of relationships in real life. Both come with their own set of risks, but ultimately the message is the same: Choose your friends wisely.

Do that, and you’ll find you can enjoy a tapestry of relationships, both online and in real life, that not only bless your life, but hopefully, will bless theirs as well. Sharing ideas, loves, and even griefs with one another can help us become more understanding. Viewing the world from another corner, seeing things from a different perspective… these are all things that can help us all become a kinder and better human community.

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