A friend asked recently about whether I thought it was possible to have a true, deep, real friendship with someone online.
While a few years back I would have jumped on the “absolutely not, facebook and all social networks are really superficial and you have to be face-to-face with a human being to really be friends” bandwagon.
Then I went to school online.
I didn’t expect much from my online university experience. I figured it would be mostly me being left alone to study when I had the time and get as much out of it as I put in. I thought I might like it more than a land-based university experience. I already had one of those for my undergrad. It involved paying to park nearly 2 miles from my classes, walking through copious amounts of allergens in 100+ heat to arrive wheezing and sweaty outside a classroom where a group of students crammed inside to listen to the professor talk about anything from the subject we were paying for to their favorite day of fishing, and then we’d leave again to run off to our next class. We’d never speak to each other (unless the prof forced us into a debate-type situation). Most profs gave up on getting us to talk, discuss, contribute since there were only a few geeks like myself who would have something to say and everyone else sat in stony silence.
My online classes kept the same group of us in classes together for over a year (some through the entire program). It quickly became clear from online classroom posts which students were there to encourage each other, which were there to sabotage each other, and which really shouldn’t be there at all. Those of us in the first category quickly formed a Facebook group and began helping each other. Initially it was the student camaraderie that I had hoped for and never found at the land-based institution; but it became more. We started sharing personal difficulties with each other, and encouraging each other. The first time a few of us met at our Residency, we embraced each other like old friends. Others I’ve still never met, but even though I’ve graduated over a year ago, we are still in touch via Facebook; not just in touch, but they are often the first to message me encouragement or prayers when I post about a difficulty; and I do the same for them. These people are precious to me. Yes, you can be on Facebook and have nothing but superficiality with those you “friend”; but with these people, we have found a way for it to be more than that.
This last week, I watched another Facebook phenomenon. A dear friend of my sister had been battling cancer. There was a Facebook page created to keep everyone praying for her advised of her status. A few days ago, her husband posted that they were back at chemo, hoping it would deal with the fluid around her lungs. Many responded back with words of support. A short time later he posted that his precious wife would soon be going “home”; and it pulled the rug out from under us. An outpouring of love and support began being posted on the page. People started sharing messages directly to the dear woman, thanking her for love, her friendship, her example. It allowed people who couldn’t be there a chance to say what they wanted to her, to find a kind of closure. It allowed everyone to grieve together.
I think an online friendship is what you make of it. Absolutely you have to be careful, there are nuts out there, not to mention predators; but most of us can also see some value to social networking. The way it reconnects you with people you haven’t seen in ages, the way you can keep up with family who live thousands of miles away; but there is also the potential for many great things. Birthday reminders for those who would otherwise be forgotten. Prayer requests spread like wildfire. A chance to type out your heart when you tend to trip over your tongue. If you choose to be real, genuine…and take the time to find the others like that out there…I absolutely believe you can have deep, meaningful friendships with people online. I do. We cry together, pray for each other, and hope to be neighbors in heaven so we can finally meet. Our schedules and the miles between us would never allow us to connect in person, at least not with the regularity needed to develop a close face-to-face friendship; but the choice to be real online with each other has allowed us something precious. And I’m thankful.