IRL Friends and Online Friends: How does the distinction fare today?

The rise of the internet has allowed the global and near-instantaneous exchange of an insane amount of data to take place. The internet did not only facilitate the sharing of data and information, but it also allowed people to connect via social media, online video games, forums, and other avenues. I’d like to focus on this aspect of the internet and share my experiences and view on how it is perceived today vs. a handful of years ago.

Perhaps only a bit more than a decade ago, if you were to say that your best friend was an online friend you’d be met with a certain type of reaction. Maybe it’s a look of disbelief, a mocking tone or simply confusion; possibly a bit of all three. I’m purely speaking from anecdotal experience in this case, but there was a certain stigma of meeting strangers from the internet or being friends with people online. If one can’t find friends in person such as in school or at one’s workplace, one must be some form of outcast. Either way, one always made the distinction between ‘IRL’ friends and ‘online’ friends, as if ‘online’ friends were not friends. Are the relations one has online not real or worthy of respect simply due to them being held exclusively in the form of online interactions? That’s the feeling I used to have and sometimes still have. Back in my middle- and high school days, I can say that I met roughly half of all my friends I regularly interacted with online, either through video games or hobby-type forums (Reddit, Pedalroom, Instagram, etc. just to name a few). While I haven’t met most of them in person, I still consider them friends, just as I would my friends from class. I was told by friends and family to watch out that I wouldn’t get scammed, I shouldn’t meet them as I could get kidnapped (at 17 years old no less) or that they might not be who they say they are. All of these are valid concerns as the internet allows people to assume any identity they want and comes with its fair share of ‘stranger danger’. I’ve met countless people through online platforms and they can be hit-or-miss, just like in-person interactions, but now I do not feel the need to distinguish between online or in-person friends and neither do other people nowadays.

This type of connotation that was attached to having online friends disappeared in my eyes. The rise of social media is an important player in this development over time. Platforms such as Tinder, Bumble, Plenty of Fish and other casual dating applications are very, very often used by people to do what would’ve blown peoples’ minds just a decade ago: meeting strangers off the internet without knowing anything about them. Tinder blew up and became incredibly popular. Naturally, there is also a sense of stranger danger, but it feels quite a bit more open and accepted by the general public. Non-sexual/relationship-oriented social media platforms such as Reddit, Facebook and Instagram have also played a large role in facilitating the creation of relationships, either platonic or romantic, based on shared interests found in subreddits, subforums, Instagram fan pages and so on. Meeting people online has become a normal part of life for a large number of people today. No one will bat an eye when telling them how you met your significant other online via Tinder, or your gym partner via a local subreddit or even a person to go to a concert with via the comments on a Facebook event. Some of the friends that used to joke that I wouldn’t come back alive from meeting a ‘random stranger’ I met online are now/have been in relationships with girls/guys they met via Tinder.

It’s interesting to look at how every year more and more people are connected to the internet and how easy it is to meet others online. It takes 30 seconds to make a Reddit account and suddenly you’re connected to hundreds of millions of people and likely the vast majority of your interactions will be with people you would have otherwise never had the chance to interact with if it wasn’t for the internet and it’s widespread and prevalent usage in today’s society. The rise of the internet and its prevalence in society comes with massive boons, but also with a fair amount of negatives that come with the possibilities to interact anonymously in digitized world.