Online friends: Has the taboo disappeared?

Using the internet to make friends or meet lovers used to be creepy but things are changing. This morning, Annie Ridout introduces her online friends and explains why it’s fine to begin friendships this way…

I was out with a friend recently who I hadn’t seen for six months. “It’s strange,” she said, “because I feel like I’ve seen you loads. But that must be from seeing your social media updates.” She then admitted to being a passive observer on Facebook – following what other people are up to but not posting her own photos or comments.

Because I hadn’t seen any recent photos of her or her daughter, the time apart felt more real for me. I had no idea what they’d been up to, while she knew the location of daytrips I’d been on, how The Early Hour was going and all about the mega tantrums Joni has taken to throwing of late.

Social media facilitates a whole new way of communicating. It really does connect you to people. Yeah, you probably don’t value all of your 836 Facebook ‘friends’ as close pals in the non-virtual world, but it does give you an idea of what people are up to, where they’re working, who they’re having babies with and what colour their hair currently is.

And not only that, it is actually becoming a tool for making new friends – or for turning a chance encounter into a blossoming friendship.

Most of us have more friends online than we have offline, as it’s much easier to become ‘friends’ at the click of an icon than to meet up for a cup of tea once a week. But according to one study, nearly a third of teenage girls have met people offline after becoming online friends. While another one reveals that one in 10 people has either met their best friend online or believe they will meet lifelong friends on the web.

My online friends…

So basically, I’m down with the kids because I’ve been making friends online. For instance, I met Laura Alvarado (who runs Tomato Tutors – a wonderful holistic tutoring company) when I was writing for the Hackney Citizen newspaper. At the time, she was curating exhibitions and I was sent to interview her. We later connected online and began supporting each other’s ventures.

When Joni was a few weeks old, I wrote a blog post that Laura related to – something about attachment with a young baby – so she phoned me up to tell me that she’d felt the same when her son Jesse was born. It was the loveliest phone call; we chatted for ages, shared motherhood experiences and have maintained a supportive, caring friendship – online, on WhatsApp and in the real world – ever since.

Without social media, I’m not sure Laura and I would have connected after that initial meeting, because it would have meant one of us phoning the other out of the blue – and that feels like a big deal. But when you’ve been ‘liking’ and commenting on each other’s photos, sharing articles and following each other’s lives, it somehow feels a lot less daunting to then make contact.

Another friend, Clara Spencer-Phillips, I met at Bestival in 2007. She was a friend of my then-boyfriend. Following a wild weekend together, we found one another on Twitter, discovered each other’s blogs and when Instagram kicked off, followed each other on there too. She had her daughter Luna while I was pregnant with Joni, and left a comment on a photo suggesting I came to see her in Brighton to “get some practice in”. I took her up on the offer; we spent a lovely day hanging out and remain in contact now.

Both Laura and Clara I’d met once before, so it’s perhaps not quite so surprising that we chose to meet again. But there are also plenty of women I’ve met online, through The Early Hour, or from following each other on Instagram (like Steph Douglas of Don’t Buy her Flowers, Suzy Ashworth from The Calm Birth School and Natasha Morabito, BFLF Events) and we’ve wound up emailing each other, sending supportive messages on Facebook and helping each other out with business stuff. Most of these women I’ve never met, or have only met briefly, in real life but it doesn’t seem to matter; it feels as if we kind of know each other.

For a long time, I was keen to communicate offline only – or at least on the phone – but over the past few years, I’ve really embraced social media. Last week, I had a Facebook phone call (didn’t even know that was a thing until now) with Luc Benyon who has just moved to Zurich. I met him through his old housemates and was aware that he worked in content marketing but without this free, instant means of connecting, it’s unlikely I’d have approached him to help with The Early Hour.

In conclusion, having online friends is GREAT

The zeitgeist might be shifting back towards real life connections and away from virtual friends but I’m going to go against the grain and admit that I definitely think there’s space for both.

It’s still hugely important to meet up with friends, acquaintances and business contacts in real life, and always will be – after all, social media is just one representation of us; we’re all a lot more rounded in person (metaphorically). But the internet really has opened up doors for me, not just because my business is entirely online, but also because my friendships are conducted partly online too. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

What are your thoughts on meeting people, or nurturing friendships online? Have you made new friends on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter? Or do you think it’s all a bit false? Would love to hear in the comment section below…