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Keeping Real Friends in a Virtual World

There was a link circulating last week about what Facebook is doing to your brain. Who wouldn’t click on a hook like that?

The video, packed with rapid-fire assertions suggests one theme: we have allowed ourselves to substitute e-connections for actual, IRL (in real life) ones. Depending on the presence you believe you have out there in the cyber-hood,  this is a haunting or illuminating revelation, but I think it is true.


True friendships according to this video – the ones you can’t edit your way through – are not possible to cultivate if your circle exceeds 150 “friends”.  On Facebook, to keep up with circles in the hundreds, one is required to construct an online friend M.O., comprised of low-investment behaviors –  sharing, liking, commenting –  to sustain them.

The things we cull to invest in an IRL relationship – confidentiality, honesty, vulnerability, and the big one, spontaneous expression, are often not invested in the Facebook self we project because among other things, we know that everything we say creates a permanent record. Imagine being overheard in a restaurant by everyone you know at once.

Some comments in response to the video were defensive and worried. Others were more of a shrug. My own reaction was mixed. I know there are those who only use Facebook to connect with others, but they may well be people for whom “real” friendship does not feel affirming, but risky and revealing.

And not everyone with Facebook friends in the hundreds or beyond is real-friend challenged as the video seems to suggest. Some people are introverts who wish to be neither social nor isolated, and find the non-committal aspect of the cyber-friendship a perfect solution. Some people become fabulous cyber-friends when distance prevents an IRL connection. My own invaluable association with a huge network of writers would not be possible without Facebook. But a balance is important to appreciate both relationships.

Where trouble happens is when direct communication is called for but shunned because the “real” social skill set has been allowed to wither. On a diet of  multiple, empty connections every day we can lose our appetite for real ones. Unplugged, our communication can begin to feel unnatural, and we can become lost in our own company.

That’s what got my attention.

I would be lost without my real friendships, and I’m comfy in my own company. But I consider Facebook a fun way to connect outside of them and some of my most important connections depend on it. Still, the video made me and, apparently, many others consider the importance of Facebook in our lives.

I’ve decided to curb my own habits. Twice a day I’ll check in and once in a while I’ll post statuses about strange people in the supermarket or annoying drivers, or  maybe a video with cats being unfriendly toward dogs. I will continue to use Facebook to shamelessly promote my published work. But I’ve removed phone notifications, and when I’m working, Facebook will stay in the other room.  I’ll always leave comments to support or celebrate others I e-know, but I might disconnect from the notifications  (“so and so also commented on this or that”) as I usually don’t e-know “so and so”.

It takes a little trying to build the real friendships that affirm us, support us, give us a place to hide out, produce witnesses to our lives. We can lose those things without trying at all.

And so, with that, I shall personal message a friend and see if they can have that lunch, share that drink, bring me up to date, help keep me out there IRL.

I want to talk about that Facebook video.

Read more from Susan Bonifant on her blog, Worth Mentioning

Susan Bonifant

Susan Bonifant is an essayist and novelist who has launched four children and returned to a full-time writing career. Since 2008, Susan has maintained a blog titled "Worth Mentioning," where she captures a sometimes overlooked view of parenting, friendship, working, marriage, and other aspects of daily life that make them worth remembering. Susan is a member of the New Hampshire Writing Project and the Grub Street Organization in Boston. In addition to the Christian Science Monitor, she contributes to the Concord Monitor and blogs at Worth Mentioning. She lives in Hopkinton, New Hampshire with her husband Larry and writer-cat, Gus.

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virginia sullivan

Friday 11th of July 2014

Your comments really resonate with me Susan. Some people feel that they can now have satisfying relationships with others virtually. Still, when we are sacrificing face to face social interactions because we have our nose in the phone, that's not good. We've all seen couples in expensive restaurants spending all the time focused on their phones rather than talking with each other. It's sad. Great post!

Susan Bonifant

Friday 11th of July 2014

Thank you for the comment Virginia. I agree that while most of us enjoy both virtual and IRL relationships, it's become comfortable for some to rely on the former. Life is busy. It's easy to fall back on social media for camaraderie and not put the time into the face time. I do understand that.


Thursday 10th of July 2014

Loved this article! I have always loved making new friends! My life wouldn't be nearly as complete without .ALL of the many virtual friends that are now dear friends in real life. I definitely make time for nurturing those friendships. I met one of my best friends through an online postcard club, even though we live half a world away. We had the time of our lives when she came to my home to stay for two weeks after talking online for 2 years! Yes LIFE IS GOOD!

Susan Bonifant

Friday 11th of July 2014

I love that story. I have met so many online friends in connection with writing...I know when we meet up there will be some very long conversations.

Susan Williams

Thursday 10th of July 2014

I don't think Facebook (or other social media) ever truly satisfy that hunger we have for being intimately known, and loved anyway. That's why I kind of shrug at the video. If you have real friendships that last through the years, you know that. If you don't, you know the lonely. You know the never satiated longing, to be known, accepted, and loved. It's inescapable, really.

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of July 2014

Susan, I agree, there's room for both. It's important to know what each relationship brings to your life, for sure.

Carol Cassara

Thursday 10th of July 2014

I've turned a few FB friends into IRL friends. My issue is that I don't see boundaries like states and countries. So Fb is good for that.

susan bonifant

Thursday 10th of July 2014

Agreed.I have made good connections with people and then realized I have no idea where they live.

Anne Parris

Thursday 10th of July 2014

Maintaining that balance between the IRL and the virtual can be tough. I was just thinking I've been so busy online (it's where my work is) that I'm drift from some real-friends I don't want to lose. A good reminder, Susan!

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of July 2014

Same here, Anne. It occurred to me recently that I'd been a little holed up between fiction and Facebook. A couple of lunches next week should fix me right up.

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