It seems to me, the internet has made it easy to meet people who are fundamentally like us. Nowadays, I myself expect it to happen once or twice a month — which is more frequent than the same thing happening offline.
Yet, what impresses me most about meeting people online who are fundamentally like me isn’t how often it happens, but with whom it happens. I have been nearly astonished to discover again and again how much someone from a background, society, or culture very different from my own can feel almost like kin to me.
Indeed, it makes me wonder just how important background, cultural, and social differences are. Before the net, I saw such differences as crucially important; now, I’m not so sure. Maybe how well our most basic personalities mesh with each other can be more important to the strength of our friendships than all the financial, social, political, religious, philosophical, national, age, ethnic, gender, and other differences that would otherwise divide us.
I’m still very much working out an answer to that question. I would like to believe that friendship consistently trumps everything else, but I know that sometimes it doesn’t. For one thing, there are too many recorded instances of friends murdering each other for political, religious, or other such differences for it to be true that friendships always trump those differences. Sometimes they do, but they don’t always.
Of course, the mere fact your personality meshes well with someone else’s personality in no way guarantees you two will become friends. So far as I’ve been told, a good personality mesh is less important to the strength of the friendship bond than at least two other factors.
Working together towards a goal is one of those factors. People tend to bond when they do that well. And if they do it well, then the more they do it, the more bonded they become.
Unfortunately, the internet provides comparatively limited opportunities to work together. Sure, you can do somethings together, but not as many things as you can with someone offline. That’s important because working together towards a goal is — at least according to the science I’ve read — a top factor in friends bonding with each other. It’s arguable that the limits the net imposes on this type of bonding reduce the strength of internet friendships.
The other factor is mutual self-disclosure. People who voluntarily and more or less comfortably disclose or reveal themselves to each other tend to bond much more strongly than those who don’t. In fact, it seems very difficult to form a strong bond without at least some significant measure of mutual self-disclosure.
It’s likely that the internet substantially helps to facilitate self-disclosure. There’s a good reason Catholics build confessionals. It’s much easier to talk freely and honestly about yourself when you have the anonymity that can be — and sometimes is — provided by the confessional. Even better than a confessional, the net can provide anonymity to anyone who wants it. In fact, I’ve noticed it is so common these days to “confess all” over the internet that I sometimes think of the net as “The Great Confessional of Our Times”.
But even people who prefer to fully disclose their real names, locations, and other identifying information are nowadays apt to reveal all sorts of other personal stuff about themselves over the net. Whatever it is about the net that makes so many people feel safe to disclose so very much about themselves, anonymity does not seem to be the key factor causing it.
Whatever the cause(s) of it, it seems probable that so much self-disclosure provides comparatively many opportunities for people to bond in friendship. Moreover, I think those bonds are very likely to be just as profound in many instances as any offline bonds that are predominantly based on mutual self-disclosure.
Considering all of the above, I think a good case can be made for the notion that internet friendships are capable of becoming quite strong, perhaps just as strong as offline friendships. The opportunities the net provides for working together towards a goal — although comparatively limited — combined with the opportunities it offers for mutual self-disclosure would seem to be two most crucially important factors in making such strong bonds possible. Of course, there are other factors that go into forming strong friendships, but those two seem to be the top factors.
Furthermore, I think that, if two people’s personalities fundamentally mesh well, they might even be able to form a strong bond between them in spite of being divided by many differences in such things as their age, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, politics, nationality, and so forth. That would seem to be significant here because the net easily brings together very diverse people.
But none of that addresses the odds or probability of such strong friendships happening. Are strong internet friendships less likely, as likely, or more likely to come about than strong offline friendships? To me, that’s an interesting question, but one that I do not have an answer to. What do you think, though?
And what do you think about the overall strength of internet friendships?