Carly here, and before I delve into this topic, I need to get one relevant bit of info out there: I’m going on 26. Given that, it’s likely that many of you readers will feel differently about this topic than I do. I’m hoping that Jane will post her take on this later, and that we’ll also expand this topic into the business environment down the road.
When analyzing the development of relationships of any kind, I think it’s important to strip away the vehicle of communication—whether it’s a social networking site, a friend’s party, a school, a work environment, etc.—and focus on the core quality of the communication. Ultimately, that is what determines the quality of a relationship. With that said, my simple answer to the above question is YES, social networks can be a very effective vehicle for fostering new relationships. Read on for some examples from my life.
The Friend I’d Never Have Met
There is one particularly clear-cut instance of one hundred percent social network-derived friendship in my life: I have a pen pal who lives in Finland. I met her via LiveJournal, which was a very popular personal blogging/social networking platform in the pre-Facebook and Twitter days. I’d never have met her without LiveJournal, and in fact I still haven’t met her in person, but in addition to talking online, we’ve been writing snail mail letters and sending Christmas and birthday presents, photos, and other little gifts to each other for going on eight years. We have common interests that are not really present among any of my other friends (more on that down below). I used to communicate with many people via LiveJournal, but never had the same experience with anyone else. My Finnish friend and I just very naturally connected on a deeper level, and our relationship evolved past this one website all on its own. I can definitely say that my life has been richer with her in it.
Aid for the Timid
When it comes to initiating communication, I’m extremely shy. I can be very engaging when someone else has control of a situation, but when it’s left to me, I freeze up…badly. I even hate calling a restaurant to order takeout! Having a social network as a buffer makes taking that first step a lot easier for me. You may think that’s a cop out. Well, it probably is… but here’s the reality: for me, it’s often a choice between communicating with assistance and letting my nerves get the better of me and not communicating at all. There’s no compromise. So which is better? Personally, I’ve kept in contact with friends from high school and college via social networking with whom I’ve never felt close enough to call on the phone. They’d otherwise have fallen completely out of my life, and I’m glad they haven’t. I can say the same about developing useful professional friendships. I NEVER feel comfortable soliciting someone for something out of the blue, particularly if it’s someone I admire. But if I develop a presence in his/her Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts, I have a little foundation in place when I really need to start a conversation.
Finding Like Minds
I have some quirky interests, and, as I mentioned above, I don’t really share them with the majority of my friends. For example, I like a lot of foreign music—Japanese, French, and Korean, to name a few. Being passionate about something and having no sympathetic outlet for that passion is, well, no fun at all. So, I’ve filled in the gaps in my social sphere with online communities where necessary. It’s so much more enjoyable to share an interest with fellow fans than it is to sit alone in your room brimming with excitement. Really, the interest or hobby in question doesn’t even have to be quirky for this to apply. Maybe you love to cook, but your life is full of picky eaters. My boyfriend, for example, is a huge Baltimore Orioles fan, and doesn’t live anywhere near Baltimore. He has developed many strong relationships with like-minded fans via social websites.
A Change in How We Meet People
When my family first got an internet connection back when I was in middle school, meeting people online—for romantic or platonic reasons—was considered pretty sketchy. By the time I got to college, it wasn’t so sketchy anymore, but I had a number of single friends who, despite wanting to, were reluctant to join dating sites because they were “embarrassed they had to.” Now, as more and more of my friends share stories of their dating site escapades, I’m realizing that the landscape of meeting people in person is completely different than it once was. As more people are joining dating sites, fewer people are just hanging around in bars waiting for mister or miss “perfect” to walk by (just to give an example). And as that balance changes, so does the probability that you’ll find a meaningful connection in one place versus the other.
This doesn’t just apply to dating sites and romantic relationships. I recently moved to a new city and I work from home, which makes meeting people rather difficult. I joined a yoga studio, I started going to open drawing nights, and I kept a lookout in my apartment complex for people who looked to be about my age, but not much has come from those efforts. One day, I found a blog specifically about things to do in my area for new residents and visitors. I emailed the author for advice, and she posted my email publicly. I’ve since become friends with a few people I met through that blog, and I’d never have run into them if I’d gone out looking. I think the bottom line is, people who communicate via social networks do not necessarily exclude themselves from other potential relationship-building environments, but people who specifically avoid social networking might be cutting themselves off from an entire population.
Social networking sites certainly do not provide a magical relationship-building solution, as many people seem to perceive. In my experience, however, they are a perfectly valid means to an end, provided, of course, that your basic communication skills suffice, as would be necessary in ANY situation. I’d love to hear your thoughts in our comments area!