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In defense of your "mutuals": Take care not to get catfished, but don't dismiss your online-only friends.
In an effort to shore up its public image, Facebook is running a series of video ads around the theme the Facebook groups facilitate get-togethers among real people who might have felt isolated without the help of their platform. Ads like "Deaf Hoops" and "Dance Accepts Everyone" aim to leave the impression that the world is better off with Facebook encouraging the creation of new connections.
■ Of course, not all connections are created equal -- or even, for that matter, are they all created good. Connections that make it easier for anonymous trolls to harass members of a religious minority, for example, are not good connections.
■ But there is good to be found in catalyzing the formation of online friendships. Not mere connections, but actual friendships. But what does that actually mean? Can we consider online friends to be real friends, even if we haven't met them?
■ One of the counter-intuitive aspects to making friends online is that the exchanges tend to take place asynchronously. One person shares, another responds -- but not usually at the same time. The friendships that get struck up talking across the neighbor's chain-link fence are more thoroughly informed by things like non-verbal communication and shared real-time experiences (like "How about the weather today?"), but synchronicity isn't everything.
■ For as long as couriers have been willing to carry letters, people have been conducting asynchronous friendships. Consider the letters of St. Paul or Lucius Seneca's epistles to Lucilius, or the legendary 50-year running exchange between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Physical presence and shared time aren't prerequisites to maintaining a friendship bond.
■ By the same token, most of the great correspondence-based friendships emerged between partners who already shared a common bond and then turned to their letters as a tool of sustaining friendships. Not many have emerged between randomly-assigned pen pals.
■ That is where Internet-originated friendships have stepped in. If we look beyond "followers" and instead consider only "mutuals" (people who reciprocally follow one another's online updates), then it really isn't that hard to find authentic asynchronous friendships.
■ A friend is a person about whom it can be said that "Your joy brings me joy". And for all of the bad consequences of saturating our world with social-media updates, staged pictures, and how-to guides for becoming a TikTok "influencer", it is worth noting that many people are, in fact, happier because they can follow the joy of others -- including people they've never met.
■ Epictetus asked, "[W]hich would you rather have, a sum of money or a faithful and honorable friend?" Lots of "friends" are for sale today (sometimes quite literally). As the race to regulate "big tech" continues to accelerate, it's worthwhile to take a step back and appreciate the existing friendships made easier to sustain through technology as well as the new friendships brokered entirely by online contact. To the extent we genuinely cheer on our asynchronous friends and bring one another authentic feelings of joy, those virtual friendships are good -- and entirely real.