Are internet friendships second-rate?

Earlier this afternoon I was at a BBQ (invited via Facebook) where I was chatting to someone about the different nature of offline and online communities. By coincidence when I got home and caught up on some blog reading, I found Jane Mason saying this:

Internet relationships (especially the ones on the websites most employers ban) are not intimate relationships. They are social, business, casual, or some combination of the three. By this, I am not suggesting that internet relationships are bad or shallow – just that they are limited and we should remember this.

The person I was talking to this afternoon was making a similar point, but neither convince me. Indeed, the chap gave a good example of the real sense of community in a Scottish village which is rather double-edged. That’s because one of the reasons I think online friendship is often as real, or stronger, than friendships offline is that it is much easier to cut back or stop communicating online with someone where the friendship is no more than it is to do so away from your computer.

Face to face, pleasantries can continue long after you’d have stopped replying to someone’s tweets, liking their status updates on Facebook or sharing photos on Flickr. In a strong rural community, such as the Scottish one we were talking about, there can often be a real sense of suppression as people are stifled and forced to carry on dealing with people they no longer like. There are some benefits from that – but also many drawbacks.

But fundamentally, the online/offline distinction isn’t one that takes us very far as friendships often cross the line. Whether it’s using online to keep in touch with a friend who has got married and moved to another town or whether it’s meeting up face-to-face to see the latest film from the director you’ve been talking about online, friendships frequently cross both worlds. And it’s no wonder, because the online world is just another way of communicating – and we wouldn’t think of distinguishing between friends who phone or friends who write. They’re all friends who communicate, in the manner and style that suits them.

The distinctions are not about the means by which you communicate, they’re about whether it’s casual friendly banter or friendship – whatever the means of communication.

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