8 August, 2018
I was discussing with a friend recently about MMOs and freindships. Their guild had started to fall apart; it had lost that friendly feeling that it had before. And there was a schism between the groups of players forming. Worse, someone the guild leader thought was a close friend left the guild to join another splinter group.
That got us talking about the nature of online friends. Let’s look at that a bit.
What is friendship?
I wrote a bit about how to design for friendship and about online relationships/friendships before. Friendship is a pretty complex thing that seems simple on the surface. You can simplify it down to “shared experiences”, but there’s more to it than that.
Different people have different expectations for friendship. One person might have a lot of friends in general, another has a few really good friends. The threshold at which we call someone a “friend” might change. So it’s not really a one-size-fits-all situation.
In the offline world, we have certain expectations of a friend’s loyalty. In fact, we have some negative words for people who violate these expectations, such as “fair-weather friends”. And this sort of loyalty is possible to observe in the offline world; if someone betrays you, they will likely still have to face you in places you frequent together: work, social venues, mutual friends, and the like. Betraying a friend is tougher when you have to see that friend again.
A great medium of communication
One of the best things about the internet is that it connects people that you’d never be able to meet otherwise. I’ve met people form around the globe, staring with me chatting with someone in England on a text MUD I played in university. It was a mind-blowing experience for someone who had barely traveled out of the U.S. to talk to someone in a distant hemisphere.
This is a great thing in my opinion. First, it lets you find others who you click with. I’ve met some people online who I’ve formed deep friendships with, something that could rival just about any offline friendship. We shared a lot in common, so it was easy for us to click together. But it also exposes us to more people with diverse viewpoints. This can help us expand our mind if we allow it, to get more points of view to consider. It’s a powerful thing to find other people who we can empathize with.
The online difference
So what happens when things go online? In general, online interactions will seem more personal in a way. With the screen in the way, it’s easier for us to have some psychological distance between the other person.
This distance works in two ways though. One one hand it allows us to share and do things we might be too anxious or embarrassed to do in person. It might be easier to confide in that friendly pal in the MMO guild because they don’t know things like your real name, where you live, where you work, or who your friends are. Even in the age of Facebook and other deeply personal social media, we can still reserve part of ourselves that the other person doesn’t know.
But it also works in a bad way, to let us hurt others without any sympathetic feelings standing in the way. It’s easier to do something horrible to someone else when you don’t have to see the consequences of your actions. You don’t have to look the person in the eye if you are in the same location, because all locations are virtual. You won’t see the hurt in their eyes when they see you since everything is done by less expressive avatars.
Interestingly enough, we often give people tools that make this easier. The same tools we give to players to help protect them from bullies, harassment, and other negative social interactions are the same things that can be used to separate someone who has been hurt by the individual. But blocking or blacklisting a person you wrong, it becomes easier to ignore the harm done. This also allows people to block off opinions that they don’t like, making it so they don’t have to tolerate dissenting opinions as well, something we had to do in the offline world quite a bit.
So what is online friendship?
This is the tricky part. If we can feel more personal but also more distant from other people, what’s the result? The result is that friendship are “easy come, easy go” as they saying goes. It’s easy to fall in with someone quickly, think they’re wonderful, but then just as easily drift apart. Maybe interests change and that thing you shared so passionately goes away. Or maybe a hidden personality flaw comes to the surface and drives a schism between you. Or maybe one or the other of you find a new friend you like more, ignoring the person.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. I have friends I’ve known for years from online interaction. Sometimes we drift apart, but with a few we can pick up like there was no delay between us. And sometimes online friendships can stand the test of time. I was just talking with someone who had been RPing the same characters with another person for over 5 years, and they had been close friends because of that shared interest. Many offline relationships don’t last that long!
So it’s really up to the individuals. It can feel like online friendships are “shallow”, but I’d argue that’s because there are so many opportunities to meet friends that the cost is low to find new ones. But I think that some friendships can last the test of time in the right situations.
So what do you think? Do you think that online friendships are truly different? Or are they variations on a theme?