This is going to sound like I need a porch, a rocking chair, and a hound by my side, so I can yell at the kids to get off my lawn in maximum comfort. But I think it’s an important issue that’s affecting more and more people in worse ways, so here it goes.
I have some concerns around internet-only friendships and relationships. It’s not about the ease with which people can misrepresent themselves; people can lie in “real” life, too, and anyway there are often ways around that issue. There is plenty of good information out there about avoiding catfishes. My main concern is different, and it’s centered on the fact that you can have an allegedly deep, close relationship with someone that never requires any degree of effort on anyone’s part.
Internet-friendships can be largely cost-free. By this I don’t mean just their financial impact – though in the olden days when ringing people may have meant hearing coins fall down a slot you really knew who wanted to talk to you… It’s that people can now be your bestest internet friends without anyone actually doing anything more than deciding it is so. They don’t have to take any steps to come out and physically meet you; and whether that’s at the end of the road or the end of the world doesn’t really matter. It’s the physical aspect of never having to actually do something that I think is important; paraphrasing badly, it’s an issue of never having to put your energy where your mouth is.
People can gush affection at you online without having to get washed and dressed, or even get out of bed. It’s eminently convenient. Whatever they say to you, you might not have any real bearings on how much you really matter to them. It might turn out that even if you travel to the end of the world to see them, you don’t actually matter enough for them to make whatever efforts are required to come out the house for you. (And no, this isn’t a dig at people with social anxieties or agoraphobia – those are obviously special circumstances that a Twue Fwiend should surely have been made aware of.)
What about all the time that they kindly dedicate to you, though? Doesn’t that count for something? Well, that’s not always that straightforward, either.
People can be dedicating a chunk of their otherwise busy time for you because they like you… but they can also be chatting to you while they’re taking a complicated poo, waiting for the kettle to boil or the bread to be toasted, and in all the nooks and crannies of their life that would otherwise be dead time. The total amount of time given may be less important than what that time would have otherwise been used for. If you are replacing “staring out of window” or “picking bogeys out of nose” or “compulsively watching Hamster Dance” in their life, the time they’re giving you is not actually worth a lot.
Hell, if the time they’re giving you would otherwise have been filled up with nothing – if all they’re using you for is killing time – then even continuous hours spent on you may be meaningless. The moment something happens to fill their lives, you might find yourself suddenly out of a friend.
Am I saying that all internet-based human connections are pointless, or doomed? Absolutely not. The problem is precisely the opposite – that many people really do grow to care and cherish the people they meet online only to find that the significance of their connection, despite promises and protestations by the other party, is utterly one-sided. And yes, this also happens in the real world, but the real world, in demanding that people manifest their care by actual actions, offers much greater chances to reveal that discrepancy. I see a lot of people get hurt by being suddenly dropped by people they thought cared about them, people in whom they were deeply emotionally invested, and I don’t like it. And I think a lot of it stems from a lack of a yardstick by which to measure the actual worth of a relationship, and not realising that, unfortunately, costless and worthless all too often go hand-in-hand.