Online Friendships
By Bart Vogelzang

Is it possible to develop a legitimate friendship exclusively online? Can one really come to like someone who hasn’t been met in the flesh? How many of our connections to each other are based on body language and facial expressions?

It’s obviously an interesting question, and there may be some basis for discussion coming from within the autistic community. Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) almost invariably have social communication issues as a central problem. Those with AS or HFA don’t ‘see’ the body language, or the facial expressions. Of course they actually do see the physical expressions manifested by nearly everyone, but they cannot recognize what they mean, and certainly not without very specific guidance and training. What seems to be an instant and almost instinctive recognition by anyone not on the autistic spectrum is a complete blank wall for untrained autistics. However, that doesn’t seem to preclude friendships at all. In fact, some of the strongest of friendships can be between people who each don’t ‘see the obvious’ and rely on actual verbal communication. How can that be?

Simply put, each person experiences different things as they grow to maturity, and each will have a slightly different ‘spin’ on what they show in their own body language and facial expressions, and thereby also how they perceive those of others. In other words, what you see (as in ‘interpret’) is not necessarily the same as what the other person is intending to communicate. In a somewhat exaggerated example, someone who has a history in their family of accidental deaths from infections may wail in dismay at getting a cut, and act like it is their death approaching, which when seen by someone who has easily survived seemingly much more serious injuries may produce no sympathy whatsoever. They are quite likely to get into a heated battle over the perceived messages, each seeing something completely different. Talking about it, rather than reading the non-verbal cues would have been much more effective. Friendship in the autistic community very often functions exactly that way, by means of talking things out rationally.

Taking that concept to the Internet, it is probably quite feasible to develop a legitimate friendship online, under the condition that each one is telling the truth. Just the words being typed, if they ‘hang together’ in a viable and logical way, will lead to a deep understanding of each other, as vulnerabilities are revealed and helpful suggestions offered. As you learn about the other person’s life, their dreams and challenges, you begin to like them, appreciate their value in your life, and your value in theirs. Conversely, you might find you are not truly compatible, so the friendship would never develop at all. In the past, pen pals abounded, and some of those became friendships too, sometimes becoming a physical one, if the two met, but often just long-distance.

The real connections we have with others isn’t really based on body language or facial expressions, as those are just one method of reaching what is really needed; understanding and appreciation of each other. That is why some families just rip themselves apart over the years, due to lack of understanding and appreciation of each other. They don’t talk honestly with each other, but instead let barricades to communication intrude, which can run the gamut from the blindness of unthinking beliefs of all kinds, mental warping from chemicals (drink and drugs), to conforming to societal pressures of one kind or another. Friendships generally don’t disintegrate that way, because they develop from nothing, blossoming into something wonderful due to effective communication, unlike families, which appear almost overnight, and have no real requirement (although they do have the need) of having members communicate with each other.

Please note that I am not suggesting that there aren’t people who will lie online, and end up deceiving others into liking them, but lying is by no means limited to online, as there will always be those willing to deceive others to achieve their own ends. However, they will be building a friend-like structure that is totally false and which will collapse with the slightest shaking of the founding lies.

So how can you identify whether or not you have a friendship online? If you are concerned about the other person, and long to help them with their problems, you can be pretty sure you are friends. If you can accept their help without feeling embarrassed or beholden, you can be pretty sure you are friends. If you mourn their disappearance from online, however that may come about, you can be pretty sure you are friends. The beauty of the online friendship is that neither of you can have any ulterior motive; there is no physical presence which could be creating sexual or monetary undercurrents. More likely than not, you won’t even know what the other person looks like. The friendship is purely one of intellectual and emotional connection via words.

This is probably a good time to mention the so-called ‘friend’ connection sites online, in which you quickly become ‘friends’ with people by simply clicking on their names. Those sites simulate friendship to some degree, in that things are often shared, but usually they shouldn’t be. Carefully looking at the public posts will reveal that there is nothing really deep about them, and they are not reciprocal. “I pigged out on munchies an hour ago and now have the shits,” is not sharing anything of value, and certainly could have been left at the keyboard without entering. The fact that they are distributed far and wide, to no one particular person, shows they are not friendship material, just a typed log entry. For all intents and purposes, they are blog sites, without the security. If you ever want to test out how much those people really are ‘friends’ of yours, stop posting anything for a while. If none contacts you via phone or personal email to ask if you are okay, they weren’t friends at all.