Our ability to socialize has decreased significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even pre-COVID, not everyone was able to be out and about to make new friends. While there are plenty of opportunities to find “friends” on various social media channels and other online networks, the question is how authentic relationships can be that start - or even remain - online? Studies suggest there are benefits to becoming active in multiple online groups to find community and that authentic relationships are possible. I invited experts to weigh in.
Viktor Sander, counselor at SocialPro, believes it is possible to develop genuine connections online if people look for balanced online relationships. “It’s easy to get stuck only listening to and supporting others online, or seeking support from others,” said Sander. “But for a relationship to become more substantial, there needs to be a balance between sharing with each other.” But Sander is unsure about whether online only friendships can last. “It’s so easy to ‘disappear’ from an online friendship, and often you only see a certain aspect of the other person.”
Curtis A. Weyant, Alum and Dean of Outreach for Signum University, is a success story for building authentic relationships online. Weyant said, “I've always loved fantasy and science fiction, but it wasn't until I started my online masters degree focusing on speculative fiction, that I really found my people. Although I graduated several years ago, I've kept in touch with many of the professors and other students from my classes, participating in online events and collaborating with people around the world on various projects. It's been a blast, and I can't really remember life before I found my friends at Signum.”
Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD, LLC has also developed connections online. She has used social media for the past six years as a tool to help with her weight loss journey and believes these online friendships are just as meaningful as offline ones. She says, “Authentic relationships start online just as they do in traditional social interactions -through common interests and shared experiences. When developing genuine connections online, do not to force the relationship, but allow it to happen organically by staying in contact online initially. The next step would be meeting safely either through phone or in person to solidify the connection, but meeting in person is not essential." She adds, "I have a friend and business accountability partner I met online three years ago and we still have not met in person. We were drawn to each other by our mutual interest in using social media to promote health and fitness. We started following each other's pages, direct messaging and eventually meeting via phone periodically. Online friendships can be authentic and sustainable if both parties are being their true selves and appreciate the value of the friendship.”
Katie Dames, a relationship expert, is less sure about finding friends online. “In-person interactions are a vital component of authentic human connections,” said Dames. “Although online platforms can be a great springboard for creating initial relationships, they can in no way replace certain features of real-life connections. Components of in-person connections include physical touch and intonation of speech, which cannot be achieved without face-to-face interactions.”
Dr. Judy Ho, Ph. D., ABPP, ABPdN has a word of caution for people who look for friends online. She suggests “starting discussions in a public forum first (such as in a group) and then if you feel there is mutual interest to continue the friendship at a deeper level, you can then move to more private conversations. In those private conversations, certainly be yourself and be vulnerable, but be careful as well. Online predators who might take advantage of you are often lurking, so take your time to let someone know some of the lesser known things about you.”
Once you do find your community, vulnerability is a key to authenticity. “On social media, there’s a trend of looking perfect to grab more of the audience,” said Dr. Calvin Ng, a chiropractic kinesiologist. “However, that’s not developing meaningful relationships or communities, which is why our world today is more divided than ever before, yet we can instantly send a message to someone halfway across the world. Whether you are selling a product or building your brand online, people flock to you and listen to you because they resonate with who you are and feel like you understand their struggles as well. Everybody goes through challenges and we tend to want to find our tribe of people who have gone through, or going through, those life challenges. People looking for others who can validate their own emotions and internal battles, so vulnerability and being transparent is the best way to relate and connect. It’s how we have always connected deeply.”