Lonely hearts and minds
This year I’ve been to the weddings of two couples that met online and seen another two Tinder couples move in together.
The taboo around meeting partners online is disappearing faster than Travis Kalanick’s reputation, but using the internet to make new friends could still do with a rebrand.
As any adult knows, gone are the days when you just fall into new friendships thanks to school or uni. Combined with the rise of digital this means it’s harder than ever to make and keep friends IRL*.
What’s worse is that not only are we more likely to be lonely, research from Brigham Young University in Utah shows that not having friends has the same impact on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.
The obvious place to look for new friendships in an age of Reddit, Twitter and Facebook is the internet. Just this week Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants Facebook users to start playing a similar role to church pastors in their online communities.
The social media giant’s new mission is to grow groups and communities and “bring the world closer together”. A worthy cause, but I’m not sure Zuckerberg’s frustration that “only” 100 million of the platform’s two billion users are in Facebook communities is because he wants everyone to be best mates.
Thanks to forums, chatrooms and gaming the internet has always been a solid springboard for introverts to carry out friendships minus social stress.
Between the ages of 13 and 18 I probably spent more time talking to friends on MSN Messenger than I did in real life, often meeting friends of friends in group chats.
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Over a decade later it seems friendships require being a bit more proactive, but tech still offers some solutions.
There’s been a rise in apps like Me3, which connects users in like-minded groups of three. It only lets you pair with same-sex people to discourage using the app romantically.
This is obviously a moot point for lesbian, gay and bi people but is at least trying to overcome the fact that any woman searching for friendship on the internet will likely be sent naked pics at some point.
The problem with transitioning friends from digital to offline – just like with dating – is that just because you get on well with someone online doesn’t mean you’ll have the same chemistry in real life. It can also be all too easy to leave the friendships online and never move them into real life.
Some people would rather have online friends than real ones anyway. Freelance writer Crystal Ponti told the Washington Post that when she became a mum she realised she couldn’t be a good friend because she was so busy.
“Today, I have no traditional friends. But I’m okay with that, because I have an abundance of online friends,” she said.
For those that want to, there are little things we can do every day to feel more connected and create opportunities to make friendships – have an actual conversation with the person serving us coffee, for example. There’s even one brilliant café in the US that’s charging customers less if they’re friendly to its baristas.
If you’re still filled with despair there is evidence that a middle ground might be the way forward.
“It turns out that when you talk with a little more depth on Facebook to people you already like, you feel better. This also happens when people talk in person,” said Dr Robert Kraut, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
William Hobbs and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, have also found that interacting with friends on Facebook might help you live longer. They found that in any given year the average Facebook user is less likely to die than a non-Facebooker.
So, Zuckerberg is right – ish. You can definitely find like-minded people online, and it can be a way to start friendships too. But, depending on what you’re looking for, it’s unlikely to ever be a substitute for real life.
*In Real Life, obviously…
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