I'll Be There For You.

I've been thinking - a LOT - about this post from Jay Baer: Social Media, Pretend Friends, and the Lie of False Intimacy. Social Media has literally changed my life. Some of the relationships I have made through social media will be with me for the rest of my days, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful. Finding those true friends - or your other half - is not about quantity. It's about quality. Is social media rife with shallow connections? Surely. But if it helps me find a handful of people who know what I'm like and and don't mind, or the person with whom I'll spend the rest of my life, I'll not fault social media for encouraging weak ties. Life is full of weak ties.

Still, recent events in my life have me challenging the strength of some of those ties online...and offline. It is true that the asymmetrical nature of networks like Twitter means that more people "follow" me online than I could possibly know in real life. Sometimes, people I've never met assume a familiarity with me from my previous tweets or posts that I don't much cotton to. I can't, however, control that. I can only control how I react.

2011 has been an incredibly challenging year for me. Some of the friends I have made through social media will be friends for the rest of my life - I know that. Others, not so much. Here is what this year HAS taught me, however: social media might generate a larger quantity of those weak ties, but I'm not sure that social media ties are by definition any weaker than the ones we assume we have in real life, frankly. How many of your high school or college friends are you still close with? Geography doesn't necessarily make for any stronger bond than being in someone's Google+ circle. 

In my case, I'm going through a separation and an inevitable divorce from someone I've known for over 20 years. When you are with someone for that long, you collect a lot of "joint" friends. Since the separation, I've learned just how "strong" some of those ties are. Some remain friends. Some are "cordial." Others - well, I've seen one formerly "close" friend *physically* keep his back turned to me at an event. It's tempting to treat your online "friendz" as lower quality relationships than the ones you've made in real life. When you poke those models with a sharp stick, however, you might be surprised to learn that many of your "real life" relationships are little better.

I've had any number of people tell me in my life that they'll "be there for me." An interesting thought exercise: imagine you are in a time of crisis - it could be illness, financial ruin, or anything that would cause you to legimately need the help of others. Now imagine the persons in your life that would actually hop on a plane and physically *be there* for you. Those people are gold.

Some might be real life friends; some might be online friends. But that exercise will absolutely be a powerful reminder to you that our circles - our true, actual circles - have always been small. Social Media affords us the opportunity to make more "weak" acquaintances, yes - but a quality relationship is a quality relationship, whether online or off. My online relationships are no better or worse than my offline relationships merely by dint of the fact that they occur mainly on Twitter, as opposed to at my local Applebees. Relationships are work, period. Physical proximity, as it turns out, is just as weak a tie as a "like" on Facebook.

For me, my biggest fear is this - that I'll become cynical of those ties, whether online or off. I've been disappointed, after all. I've not known people as well as I thought. That realization could easily make me more guarded or withdrawn - and potentially closed to a relationship with someone who might, in fact, be the sort of person who actually would physically be there for me. I hope I don't do that. 

I know that a far greater percentage of my online friendships are superficial than are my offline friendships - but that, again, is part of the asymmetrical nature of social media. I also know this - when I imagine the people who really would be there for me -really there - when I needed them, at least half would be people I met online first. What I hope I never do is to judge the quality of a relationship by where it first originated. And I hope I never become cynical about future relationships - online or off. For me, though, 2012 is going to be the year of strong ties. I've learned that saying you will "be there" and actually being there are two different things. I'm getting clarity about who would be there for me, and who I'd go to the mat for myself. I don't know that social media is a correlative variable in that equation. 

7 responses
Yeah well, I'd be there. Just sayin.

The thing about weak ties, and the thing that Gladwell ignored, is that weak ties lead to strong (sometimes). You cannot evolve to the latter without having begun with the former.

Your friend.

And I'd be there for you. Really, and truly, there.
Here is to the year of strong ties Tom. Thanks for the personal glimpse in.
You're right. We believe our offline bonds are stronger than they really are. I have a somewhat unusual circumstance in that I have a very strong group of offline relationships that are long-standing. I've know my 5 best friends 36, 27, 23, 12, and 10 years. So when I juxtapose that kind of relationship water under the bridge with Twitter and blog-fueled ties, there's just no comparison. But, two of those guys are divorced or in the process, and I know exactly what you mean about the taking of sides and the shifting of alliances. The more I think about this, the more I realize we just need to find that group of 5-10 people that we really and truly care about (and vice versa) and use whatever means available and necessary to propagate those bonds.
As a kid, I moved with my family every five years or so, and made friends pretty easily, for the most part -- I always had a circle of girlfriends, and a few "best friends" in every city. The relationships didn't really last, though (although my parents made some lifelong friends along the way.) I don't know if I just wasn't old enough to know how to do that, or because the friendships were just destined to go quiet, but that's how it was. The town we ended up in for all of my high school years was not a place I was destined to make deep connections, either. Everyone else had grown up together, and while I was funny and affable and easy to be around, I don't know that anyone really "needed" new friends.

All that changed when I started working at summer camp in my early teens. These were totally my *people*. And while we don't see each other a ton now, and the relationships are not as close as they were in my teens and twenties, this was one step closer to the whole "lifelong friendship" thing.

My 20s and 30s have brought many more lasting friendships into my life -- so, of course, I decided to up and move 3K miles away from all of them to Boston, to focus on the relationship that matters most to me: my fiance, who I met (wait for it, wait for it...) on Twitter. Along with him, I gained a (now) 13 year old who is quite cool with me being around. Making that move and taking that leap has opened my eyes to the things about me that make me a good friend... and the ones that make me not fantastic at keeping friends.

I've realized that I'm a good listener and encourager, but I don't trust people with my own struggles quite as much. When I started blogging in '04, that's what I was trying to work through. I was trying to say the things I'd skipped saying because I was so used to moving on, or used to being the listener and caretaker because I felt like I was still earning the right to be a friend.

That blogging led to me meeting another blogger who would end up marrying my best friend in the world (which we all still marvel at.) And led me to Twitter, where I found my future husband (which we both marvel at), and another lovely group of friends that pointed me to a job here (Thanks, Tamsen!)

I don't know you very well, though we have some folks in common. I have had the opportunity to look in on that circle of friends you've built, and to see the closeness and compassion and humour and love that all of you share. It's a lovely thing to see and to be a part of, if only for short bits of time.

I hope I get to know you more.

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