Changing the Face of Friendship

By Shelley Seale

How Facebook altered the way we communicate.


Marcia Noyes is someone who rarely loses touch with friends. The marathon runner uses the Internet to post stories and photographs of her long-distance races, but last year, the use of Facebook to reconnect friendship was brought home to her in a powerful way. A high-school friend, who Noyes had not seen in 30 years, sent her a friend request on the social-networking site.

“She told me how much she appreciated me toting a camera while doing long runs and how much those photos meant to her,” Noyes says. “She went on to say that she lived through each of those pictures, and as I wrote about what I’d seen along the way, she felt as if she had run that same distance and seen those same sites.”

Noyes soon learned that her friend, Karan Vance, was living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and was in hospice with only months or weeks to live. For Noyes, running suddenly took on new meaning.

“As each step rolled in to the next, I drew in long, slow inhales of air, wondering what it must feel like to struggle for each breath,” she says. “Karan died earlier this year, and I’m so happy that she befriended me and I was able to bring some happiness to the last few months of her life.”

While most of our experiences with online friendships aren’t that dramatic, the digital age has completely changed the landscape of human interaction and how we communicate. Facebook has made it easier to reconnect with old friends, maintain friendships across long distances, and “meet” new people we might not have found otherwise, sometimes creating very close and meaningful virtual friendships. Facebook takes away the awkwardness of approaching new people and the in-between time of transition from acquaintance to friend, says Lynn Kindler, a professional life coach in Austin.

“It’s helped me with acquaintances I’ve known but was too shy to broach cultivating a friendship,” she says. “I now feel completely comfortable getting together and interacting face-to-face because of getting to know them better on Facebook.”

The social-network connections have also benefited Kindler professionally, as with time, she felt comfortable enough to invite some friends to be guests on her blog talk-radio show, Hope42Day. By and large, people seem to feel these positive aspects of Facebook bring a new, welcome dimension to their relationships and social interactions. Leila Kalmbach has kept in touch with travel friends from throughout the world, meeting up in such far-flung places as New Zealand and Nicaragua. Dawnene Harper counts as some of her closest friends those she met in online Dharma groups, which extended to Facebook. And she also credits the site with helping her re-establish a relationship with a sister she hadn’t seen in years.

“We have been able to share so much of our daily lives through chatting, status updates and photos that we normally would never have been able to,” Harper says. “I’m thrilled that my sister and I have reconnected. We have both learned a lot about each other.”

Yet online interaction has its downside. While we are more networked than ever in a world in which we need not be out of contact for a second, new research shows we have never been lonelier. For many, online socializing has replaced real face-to-face friendship in a way that can be isolating. At the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon, Research Scientist Moira Burke ran a longitudinal study of 1,200 Facebook users and found those who communicated directly with others via comments, chat and personal messages tended to increase their social capital. They became less lonely, while those who received one-click communication— for example, clicking the “like” button— experienced no change in loneliness. And passive consumption in a non-personalized way had a correlation with feelings of disconnectedness and depression.

“Facebook can make us feel disconnected if people begin to use it as substitutions for real-life interactions,” says Dr. Julie Gurner, a doctor of clinical psychology. “Facebook can make you feel lonely because often, your true self is never really known. For many, they may feel pressure to portray themselves in a certain light. Showing pictures of your marriage as happy may be masking a true relationship that is struggling, or portraying yourself as more financially successful might be hiding true fiscal security concerns. When you cannot portray yourself honestly, you never feel authentically connected or receive the support that comes with real engagement. How can others comfort you if they don’t know that you are truly struggling?”

There is also the often-detrimental comparison aspect of the online world, in which we compare our everyday lives to the highlight reels of others’ lives shown on Facebook and similar sites. Gurner says this often leaves people feeling that everyone else’s lives are more exciting and successful than their own. And, of course, online-only communication is missing vital aspects of human interaction: facial expression, body language, tone and inflection.

“When you take away real-time facial expressions and interactions, you miss a very key element of what makes human relationships satisfactory on both sides,” says Gurner, who recommends using Facebook as a supplement to relationships, not a substitution.

In fact, Facebook has provided a new tool for launching virtual friendships in to real-life ones, and often in to more significant relationships as well. Maggie Jochild, an Austin writer and activist, became involved with several blog sites, including her own, on which she posted chapters of her book and acquired a steady readership. She began noticing occasional comments from one reader called Marj. The comments soon became regular, as did their online interactions. Flash-forward a few years to fall 2009, and Jochild created a Facebook account, despite reservations about privacy. An immediate friend request from a Margot Williams seemed to validate her concerns.

“I had no idea who that was and felt dismay. This kind of intrusion from strangers was exactly why I wanted nothing to do with most social media,” Jochild says.

She declined the request but soon received an e-mail from Marj explaining that she was, in fact, Margot Williams in real life. Jochild and Williams began communicating daily and, during the next 18 months, eventually fell in love. Although Williams lives in England, the two meet via Skype for an hour nightly and have been able to spend time together in person on several occasions.

“We are partnered in every way possible,” Jochild says. “We used every means at our disposal to find each other, that’s all.” As for Williams, she calls cyberspace the modern equivalent of astral flight and the precursor to time travel. Perhaps that really is the truest definition of modern technology’s ability to connect us immediately across vast distances. More people are meeting online in various ways; dating coach Adam LoDolce cites Facebook as one of his top five ways to quickly meet people, especially if you’re new to a city. “Old friends from high school, college or maybe that random person you met on your Euro trip five years ago— you never know who now lives in your city,”

LoDolce says. The benefit of Facebook in the dating world is that you can usually know quite a bit about a person up-front, including relationship status.

“Before the age of Facebook, when you liked someone, you had to take initiative and potentially face rejection if the person was already in a relationship,” he says, adding he believes a little rejection here and there can be healthy, reminding us that it’s not the end of the world. In the end, perhaps it is just being aware that rejection and loneliness exist in online social interaction as well as offline. When we use Facebook as a tool, and not our primary way of connecting with others, it can bring tremendous benefits to friendship.

“Sometimes, we can interact with people on Facebook instead of spending time creating or nurturing the relationships that could possibly exist around us, leaving us to miss out on some of the wonderful experiences that make life interesting and unique,” Gurner says.

“Hopefully, we can still truly connect at the dinner table with the person we love, or think of more personal touches to those we don’t see often. Still, sending a handwritten note, talking by Skype or phone, mailing a package for no reason at all and visiting when able provides experiences that are impossible to replicate in an online world.”

Lynn Kindler’s Top Facebook Rules

1. Consider before clicking. Do not write anything that you wouldn’t want your mother, the president of the U.S. or your children to see.

2. Keep it professional. You are making a digital footprint of yourself that will be there forever; don’t put out today what could come back to haunt you tomorrow. Would you want your boss or a prospective boss to see certain photos of you or read your political rant or cursing?

3. If you have connected with well-known people, treat them with respect. If you “like” something they’ve posted, like it or leave occasional comments. If you share a photo or status, give proper credit.

4. Know when to take it offline. For any deeper conversations, take it offline in to a private chat or phone call. And even then, have a definite purpose for the person to connect with you.