Online relationships: Easy to find, hard to keep

The meaning of friendship and the social dynamics in online communication

Blogpost written by Eliana Scruzzi

Key Points:

  • Friendships positively affect people’s well-being and are formed through the two principles of proximity and homophily.
  • Electronic communication has changed the way we interact with others. The exclusivity of a relationship, either friendship or love, is no longer guaranteed or perceived as before. The intentions of others are also very often misinterpreted, leading more easily to conflict.
  • The ultimate characteristic of a “true friendship” is the desire to maintain a long-term relationship.

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Many studies prove that friendships are essential for the well-being of individuals. The main reason for this can be seen in all the positive effects of affection and support that mere strangers cannot give in the same way. The introduction of social networks into our society has given us incredible opportunities to find new people and make new friends, removing the limits of distance and time. People have never been as close to each other as they are nowadays. However, a question naturally arises:

Can we consider new people we met online “real friends”? The answer depends on the meaning that we give to friendship. It is difficult to give a single definition of friendship when there are so many points of view expressed by psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists. The issue becomes even more complicated when we try to understand how the dynamics in online relationships work.

A review study by Amichai-Hamburger and colleagues helps us to better understand the concept of friendship in the digital age by summarising the characteristics shared by different theories and research on the subject. In addition, it discusses how the positive characteristics of friendship are affected by the new way of communication through the net. Nowadays is more important than ever to understand the impact of the Internet on people’s well-being. Especially for the younger generation, who are just starting to learn how to create their first friendships with others.

Over the past 12 years, in the United States, for example, the percentage of children in primary school or lower education who use the Internet to communicate with others has jumped from 58% to 100% (The World Internet Project, comparison of 2010 and 2018 reports). The numbers are surprising and warn us to pay more attention to the potential negative effects of creating and maintaining relationships online. While these new social dynamics are still unclear, the Internet phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down or stopping.

Source: The World Internet Project, comparison of 2010 and 2018 reports.

According to the study, friendships arise because of two principles.

  • Propinquity: Two people become friends because they are physically close to each other or in frequent contact.
  • Homophily: When a person finds similarities with another person (e.g., in physical appearance, interests, ways of thinking, culture, etc.).

But what makes friendships so good for individuals?

The study offers five explanations:

  1. Intimacy: Friends deeply understand each other. Their conversations are profound and move beyond the simple everyday “small talk”.
  2. Companionship: Companions frequently enjoy spending good times together (in activities like playing games, doing sport, cooking, etc.).
  3. Social support: Friends emotionally support each other in difficult times.
  4. Tangible support and protection: Giving their close ones material support (such as money and objects) when needed and protecting them in dangerous situations.
  5. Exclusiveness: The tendency to socialize with only a select group or person.

Online communication has influenced the five characteristics of friendship in many different ways: Firstly, talking online puts people more at ease because there is less risk of being rejected or ridiculed in front of others. Nevertheless, online conversations seem to be less effective in understanding the other person’s feelings, which can be easily recognised in a face-to-face encounter through facial expression, body language and tone of voice. Spending time together in online activities is more common among gamers, but for others it is much more difficult. Furthermore, online communities that provide support can be very helpful for people suffering from a rare and stigmatized physical or mental illness. In addition, friendships held entirely online cannot benefit from all the tangible support and protection that others can offer offline, such as lending items or caring for children. Finally, exclusivity between friends is difficult to establish online because social media allow users to see interactions (e.g., comments) and the number of other contacts of their friends.

Why do friendships initiated in person last on average longer than online friendships?

According to the study, social media platforms can exacerbate jealousy by allowing users to know about interactions with other friends. Most often, online messages are interpreted more negatively than expected. This misinterpretation can lead to an increase in conflict in social interactions, a reduction in empathy and an increase in anti-social behaviour, all of which explain the low stability of online relationships.

The study also shows that friends connected online are usually from the same city or state. Thus, if on one hand the Internet seems to increase homophily because it is easier to find people with common interests and mindsets (e.g., online communities), on the other hand Internet decreases proximity because the sense of closeness is not perceived as well as in physical presence.

In conclusion, online relationships are easy to find, but hard to keep. The only ingredient for creating a true friendship is the desire to maintain a long-term relationship. Online communication increases closeness and intimacy between people who had already become friends offline. People‘ connections are filtered by the screen, which gives users full control over their actions and emotions, but also leads them more easily to misunderstandings and conflicts.

Research on the dynamics of online relationships needs to be deepened in order to understand the effects of the Internet on new generations of young people and to find the best ways to design more positive electronic communication for all social media users.

Amichai-Hamburger, Y., Kingsbury, M., & Schneider, B. H. (2013). Friendship: An old concept with a new meaning?

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