Hey, it’s Alvin!
I have always heard that you can make friends online. Specifically, you can make friends on social media. But having spent a few years on Twitter, I’d say it’s more accurate to say that you can start friendships online. But you can only take it so far unless you take it OFFLINE. Online-only “friendships” are shallow by comparison.
It’s hard to close the gap in an online relationship without context that you can only get offline. This only becomes obvious once you’ve furthered an online friendship offline.
I joined a new company as a software developer at the height of the pandemic. So, I’ve been working 100% remotely for over two years. I work with about six other team members regularly. We communicate asynchronously via Slack and email. And we hop on video calls when we need to have a meeting or a quick, synchronous chat.
Recently, every team member was invited to spend a week at our company’s head office, so we could work together in person.
It was a blast.
Granted, I have a welcoming, supportive team.
I’m not trying to bash remote work. In fact, fully remote work is still my preferred work arrangement. And if you do enough remote work, chances are there are people you’ve worked with online, but never met offline. But there IS value in meeting them in person. Even if it’s just once.
As soon as I stepped into the office, it was like I was meeting my teammates for the first time. It turns out everyone was taller and mostly bigger than me, which was something I never thought much about before, but also didn’t quite expect. The way our webcams are positioned for video calls, what’s in the background, and how much is shown all affect how we perceive height. Even Hollywood applies these principles of film to change how we perceive a character’s height in movies and TV shows.
Some voices even sounded different, which seems to do with the way our microphones and speakers distort audio over a video call.
On a warm sunny afternoon, we took a stroll through a nearby park as a team. What started as a casual walk ended up as a hike up a mountain. It turns out I was also one of the least fit members of the team. I wasn’t the only one. The triathletes of the team walked at a faster pace, while those who were less fit lagged behind. So, separations were created between pairs of team members as we hiked.
I was hanging around the middle of the pack, keeping pace with a lone teammate a few steps ahead. So, I caught up to him, and struck up a conversation. It’s how I learned where he was from, and his adventures immigrating to the country.
I only got to know him better because this in-person situation allowed an organic conversation to develop just between me and him. I know you can schedule a video call for a coffee chat, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same.
You can’t shake hands or fist bump over video. More importantly, there’s a lack of shared context to bond over. In a video call, you’re sitting in one room, while the other person is sitting in a different environment. But if the two of you strolled through a park together, you’re sharing the same experience at the same time. The sights, sounds, and other sensations are all part of the shared experience–a memory the two of you have, and ONLY the two of you have.
In person, you can see a person’s facial expressions coupled with their full body language with the full environmental context that a narrow camera angle cannot convey. You can see who they interact with (and don’t interact with), and how they interact with others.
You learn more about who they are.
Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t make friends online. And it isn’t always practical to meet in real life. But there will always be a relational gap that can’t be closed until you take it offline. There’s just too much context that you can only get offline.
Consider Twitter. Twitter started as a software for groups of friends to keep tabs on what one another were doing with short message service (SMS) style status updates. So, it started with the assumption that the people you tweeted were people you already knew well offline. It wasn’t designed for building relationships, but for maintaining existing ones.
Some call it a “microblogging” platform because it’s like a blogging platform with a tight character limit.
A tweet = a blog post
A reply = a comment in a comment section
A direct message = an email to the author of the blog
By looking at Twitter’s evolution, we can see that on some level, people knew the original 140-character limit was a serious problem. The limitation caused oversimplified, misleading ideas to spread because it doesn’t just force the writer to remove fluff, it forces the writer to remove context that’s needed for information to be useful and meaningful.
So, in 2017, Twitter raised the character limit from 140 to 280 characters. Not that it mattered, because people who craved meaning found ways around the limit. People would reply to their own tweets creating a “thread” of tweets—a full blog broken down into 280-character chunks. Some used TwitLonger—a tool for writers to tweet links to long posts. And now, in 2023, Twitter Blue users can post tweets as long as they want.
Twitter as a “microblogging” platform is officially dead.
Deep down inside, we all long for something meaningful. Viktor Frankl knew as much. And the rich, fulfilling parts of life that give us meaning just can’t be compressed down to a microscale. That’s why we keep pushing beyond character limits. Yet, even without a limit, there’s too much real-world context forced out from the writing we publish and interactions we have online.
A purely online relationship will never be as rich or deep as one taken offline.
Because there will always be context lost over the wire.
If you want a meaningful relationship, take it offline.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of online friends. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Have you met your online friends offline? If so, do you feel closer to them after? Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Meet your friends IRL. And I’ll see you in the next one.
Making and staying friends online is a hard thing to do. You captured the richness of in person communication. I remember “walking meetings” in the woods with coworkers and it was so much better than the zoom call, where by default you need to stay stationary for the camera. Thanks for writing this!