I just commented on a old friend’s Facebook photo of his new baby boy. I haven’t actually spoken to this friend in ten years, but through the wonders of the internet, I have remained in touch enough to know about this major life event, and to participate in it as a friend, however distant and electronically. Some may say that this type of “Facebook friendship” is “surface level” or “insincere” or even “fake.” Perhaps it is true that what remains of this once close friendship is somewhat thin, but despite its thinness, I would argue it is indeed sincere and it is very much real. In terms of sincerity, it could be argued that my Facebook comment was in fact more sincere than many of the verbal congratulations he has no doubt received in the past few days. You see, in the virtual world, I had the option of not commenting on his new status as father, but the friendship we once had and the shared role as new father compelled me to give him a virtual “high five.” The acquaintance he sees at work or in the supermarket or at church or in the local watering hole does not have the same option. That acquaintance is compelled by social norms to note my friend’s new addition.
But what of the claim that social media relationships are not “real”? I mean, we do tend to describe anything online as “virtual” which would indicate something approaching reality that is not reality. But I don’t think this is right. I would suggest that the “virtual” label is something of an anachronistic misnomer. There was a time when few of us had internet connections and those that did connect through Prodigy or AOL seemed to be doing something that was apart from real tangible human interactions. But internet usage has certainly long passed a tipping point in which the eccentric has become the norm. The very fact that I am blogging this instead of publishing it in a magazine or handing it out as a leaflet in the town square inherently points to the “realness” of the internet over, or at least alongside, more traditional forms of communication. Of course, none of this is new news. So why write about it?