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.