On-line Friendships: Are they Real?September 29, 2008
“I know it’s wrong to judge someone based on appearance, but I can’t help the fact that something about the way that fellow looks just makes me uncomfortable. I don’t trust him.”
This statement was made yesterday by a friend who I consider to be a mature individual. He was remarking on the appearance of a well dressed associate. Since we had not met or engaged in conversation with this fellow, the judgment was based entirely on his appearance.
It reminded me of how strongly our opinion of people is influenced by their appearance. No matter how hard I try, I cannot help but form judgments about people the moment I see them. Often those judgments prevent me from pursuing relationships with them.
The beauty of on-line friendship is the opportunity to get to know individuals who I would never have gravitated to had I met them in real life first. In World of Warcraft, people of every age and social status are brought together in an environment that levels the playing field and allows us to interact as equals. In this realm we can get to know one another without the prejudice that colors our real life interactions.
When I bring this subject up with my real life friends, I get the dismissive response, “But you don’t really KNOW those people. You only see the parts they want you to see.” Because I hate conflict I let it go. But if I had the courage, this is what I would say.
Are you really so naïve as to believe that just because you interact with someone in real life that qualifies you to say you really know them?
I think of the husband who, after many years of seemingly happy marriage, reveals he is gay and leaves his wife and children. I think of the pastor who, after years of sainthood in the eyes of his congregation, is revealed to be embezzling from the church while having an affair with the associate pastor’s wife. I think of the father who thinks his child is perfect – until the day she turns 18, rejects everything he believes in and leaves home to embrace a life style completely opposed to everything he had taught her. These are all things I have seen in my own family and circle of close friends. In each situation the people were shocked to discover the individual they thought they “knew” was someone else entirely.
These are situations in which the individuals had close, usually daily contact with one another. Imagine all the people who have just a casual acquaintance with one another and yet are so sure they “know” one another. The media loves to publicize stories about predators on the internet because it sells, because it is sensational, because it’s what people want to hear. But those things happen every day in real life as well. For the most part, the people you meet on line are no different from the people you meet in real life. They are just people who happen to live in a different location from you. That doesn’t make them less real.
I sometimes hear the argument, “But internet friends aren’t real. You only see what they want you to see.” To this I would ask, How is that any different from what we do every day in real life? Don’t many of us hide parts of ourself, revealing only what we believe will be accepted and approved of? I would dare to say we do this even more in real life than on the internet. At least, I am more myself on-line than I ever am in real life. A sad commentary on my real life? Perhaps. But I don’t think I’m terribly unique in this.
It is a strange paradox that we can be most ourselves when we are most anonymous. I think it goes back to my first point, that we can’t escape the prejudice that follows our physical appearance. On line we are not known by our size, color, clothing, all those externals that people mistake for who we really are. On line we have a unique opportunity to be known and to know others based on actions rather than appearance.
What does it matter whether I have met this person in real life? Does it make their influence in my life any less? Does it make the friendship I feel any less valid? Does it make their value as a person any less? Of course not. I find it ridiculous – this notion that friendships formed on line are somehow less real than those formed in real life.
My sister used to live next door to me, now she lives across the country. Does the fact that we now communicate on-line rather than face-to-face mean or our friendship is less real now? Last summer my husband and I vacationed with a couple we met in WoW. Is our friendship now more valid because we have met in real life? Of course not. They are still the same people – and so are we.
Anyone who has played World of Warcraft over an extended period of time with the same people understands that the experiences you have shared and the relationships you have developed are as real as any found in real life. You may choose not to pursue some friendships, you may choose not to disclose some facts about yourself or to present only certain sides of your personality – but you do that in real life too.
In the end, people are still people whether they live across the country or next door. Friendship, whether developed in your neighborhood or in World of Warcraft, is still friendship.