Online friendships are great to have. They stimulate online conversation, help you stay connected long distance, and reconnect with long-time friends from the past. You can and your friends can find new people to connect with through each others' friends, and you can gain deeper insight into your friends.
But let's face it; most of these friends are really acquaintances. That's not a problem; it's just that the word friend has a different meaning in the real world than it does in the virtual world. I understand why though. Which sounds better? Facebook Acquaintance or Facebook Friend? I get it. On LinkedIn, they're called Connections, which is a more apt term. (I mostly use FB, LI, & Twitter for examples here because I'm active on them and can speak directly to their use; this is not a research paper, so I'm not concerned with examining other social media.)
In the virtual world you can learn a lot more about your acquaintances fairly easily. From the discussions and Q&A sections in LinkedIn, to the wall posts in Facebook, there are a lot of insights into people sprinkled all over the web. Follow someone's Twitter feed (Tweets) for what they read, tweet, and retweet and you have a goldmine of insight available. If they have websites or blogs, you'll find those useful as well.
Here's a real example from my online acquaintances. I met one of the organizers of PodCamp at PodCamp2 Boston several years ago. Later we connected on LinkedIn. I follow this person's blog posts because I find value in the content; they're informative and helpful to my work and life. In fact, I pull in his blog feed directly to my LI home page, along with the feeds of several other friends, so from one page I can quickly review what they're posting about and stay caught up with their activity regularly. After a few years, I thought I knew him pretty well, as far as virtual acquaintanceships go. Imagine my surprise when, last week, I was perusing some virtual thinking websites and found some art from this person. I checked to make sure it was the same person; yes, it was. That led me to Flickr, a site that lets you post photos and other images for sharing, where a lot of his art was shared. This was a whole new dimension to my virtual friend that I never knew existed.
Another online acquaintanceship develop in a similar manner. We had some mutual friends in both the real and virtual worlds. From reading her blogs (yes, she has more than one), I found that we share more than a passion for technology (which is how our acquaintanceship began); we share a spiritual and philosophical mindset that made me want to know this person even more -- to move an acquaintanceship into a friendship.
The neat thing is that you can convert acquaintanceships into real friendships over time. After all, we tend to develop strong friendships with people whom we respect. Whether that begins because we share some level of political or religious beliefs, because we care about ecology, enjoy gardening, read or watch sci fi--at some level we have a common bond that draws us closer together and we form a stronger-than-acquaintanceship relationship and become true friends.
Some might wonder why the virtual world is so popular as a place to connect with others. My initial thinking on this, which is not scientific or deeply thought through, is that it provides more options than the typical places we meet people. We work longer hours, limiting our opportunities to get out and meet others. We want to meet people outside of bars, especially if we are not looking for dating relationships. And the virutal world breaks down geographic barriers for just getting to know others and see what they're all about.
Those are my thoughts this early Saturday morning. Do you have any thoughts on this topic? Use the comments to respond.