In the past decade the scope of the average person's acquaintances has been greatly enlarged by the popularity of the Internet. Since the invention of the postal system, and probably before, there has been many a relationship conducted in writing. When the telephone system came in, that made it even easier to have long-distance relationships and friendships. Even so, the majority of the everyday citizen's social interactions, before the Internet, were based on face-to-face communication.
The lack of face-to-face interaction in online and other types of distant friendships creates a number of complications that would not otherwise exist. Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, the type of relationships that are formed in the virtual environment are every bit as real and involved as those of the pre-Internet era.
Some believe that first impressions do not play as big a role in a virtual friendship. It could be that most people are reserved in their initial interactions online. The fact that so much is a mystery, and so much is easily misrepresented, makes it reasonable to assume that people will reserve judgment on individuals until further information is available.
Others contend that it's not much to do with whether the relationship is virtual or actual: it's more a question of whether you are the sort of person who relies more on first impressions, or the sort who likes to take their time before coming to conclusions. This would hold true for both types of contact.
People do not generally think of the slow formation of relationships as a process of evolving judgment based on available information. They may not even be aware that a relationship is forming in their real-life encounters. In the virtual environment, though, gradual growth is advisable, since emotions come into play once judgments have been formed. Unconsciously, perhaps, participants will withhold aspects of their own personality until they have formed some connection, whether good or bad.
If the connection is of a negative nature, virtual relationships have a distinct advantage over the traditional type. An Internet acquaintance can be so much more easily avoided than for instance a fellow employee. Unlike verbal responses that you have no choice but to hear if you're in hearing range, you can just not read an online response. This has the effect of stopping confrontations as soon as one or the other party wishes not to be involved any further.
If the connection is of a positive nature, as it often is, the opportunity exists to experience a new perspective through these acquaintances. Here is an opportunity to form a close bond that is so new in its nature that today's participants are forming the 'Internet culture' of the future.
Of course there are situations where an Internet acquaintance could well be a fellow employee. You can have work colleagues talking regularly on the phone but never meeting because they are a long way apart. And there are other kinds of work relationships - with regular customers, suppliers and so on. If you are talking to the same person every day for years you can develop quite a relationship that goes way beyond the immediate work issues, yet you might never meet. But such relationships are in a separate arena, quite apart from a friendship developed online for no more than friendship's sake.
As has been mentioned, the close bonds that are possible are generally much more drawn-out in their actual formation. It takes time to allow the natural instincts to weed out those interactions that just do not feel genuine. This is not to say that personalities can't be successfully imitated. No doubt the same is true of many people even in person. As is apparent from the news coverage on the subject, many people - young and old - have been fooled, often to their peril. Maybe it is the knowledge of such incidents that makes the well-informed leery of too quickly revealing the details of their own lives.
This process does have its advantages, though. Each new acquaintanceship can be developed in small increments, giving one time to reflect on deeper meanings or gut reactions. It is not necessary to make an immediate response, and so the responses tend to be more thought-out and complete. Interacting with each other over a period of time, participants get a chance to see - as more subjects are discussed - aspects of individual personalities that are sometimes not apparent to real-life friends. In real life, however, you are more likely to catch the other person in an unguarded moment, and see a side of their character that you would never get to see online.
Virtual relationships depend almost exclusively on how the people concerned express themselves in writing. This can be very different to how they do that in a real-life conversation.
There is one major disadvantage in the virtual world. The lack of body language has often been cited as the biggest deterrent to the forming of online relationships. Lacking clues of that kind, that often help to clarify a person's intentions, misunderstandings are frequent in the virtual environment. A remark meant to be taken as humorous can instead be taken as insulting. Either an angry confrontation, or even the end of that particular relationship, can result.
It is likely that these complexities can create a relationship that goes much deeper than the uninitiated would imagine. Even those interactions that at first appear negative can evolve into something unique and satisfying: a relationship that defies definition and can only be understood when actually experienced.
Once the bonding process has occurred, in most cases many new horizons will be opened to participants. Unlike the people we talk to daily, or even make a point of visiting occasionally, there are no boundaries to who might become an online friend. When trust has been developed, and common ground identified, it is possible to experience cultures and ideas from across the world.
The very fact that online friends cannot share their physical world puts much more emphasis on the sharing of thoughts. Often a person will develop his or her own thoughts, as ideas are bounced off friends from all over - friends who can offer a particular perspective that the person may have lacked. There is little concern that the friends of this environment might be attracted to beauty, wealth or any of the other distractions that intrude into everyday relationships. Most of the trappings of being socially acceptable can be discarded, and the sharing of minds can predominate.
This set of circumstances provides Internet friends with the chance to view the world through the eyes of their counterparts from all walks of life. The effect can be the breaking-down of barriers, if only in the preliminary virtual world, between groups that previously had no forum for interaction. Just as there are those connections in real life that are special and unique in their complexity, so there will be those online friends that nothing from real life can parallel.
When Real Life Intrudes
There is a certain fragility to such relationships. No matter how deep the bond, the connection tends to be ethereal, outside the realm of what can be touched and examined.
One of the factors that make these friendships fragile is the lack of traditional interaction. Sometimes there is a tendency to imagine these friends as having a nature that is not truly practical. They seem to be immune to the effects of the world around us, and we come to think of them as unchanging factors in our life. When the fact that they are real human beings, subject to the whims of life, becomes apparent, that can sometimes be a painful lesson.
When this realm of friendship has been entered into, the tendency is to focus only on the sharing of thoughts. The physical demands of life are often pushed out of our awareness of the people we commune with online. But as tragedy occurs all around us in our real lives, so it does in the virtual world. It is at this point that a new stage of evolution occurs in each member of the Internet culture: the point at which they realise how vulnerable human beings are, even when they offer only their minds. What might have seemed like a protective environment in which to interact is revealed as another avenue in which to experience the pain of loss.
Such a loss is undoubtedly uncharted territory for the average individual. In some ways it is like the death of a well-known person that you have never actually met. It might be Elvis or Buddy Holly or John Lennon. When Princess Diana died it was obvious that many people mourned - but how do you mourn the death of a personal acquaintance you never truly met? You might not be able to express your sympathy to the loved ones of your friend who has died. Most probably you will not be able to attend the funeral and thus achieve 'closure'. It will in all likelihood be difficult to accept the reality that friend is gone, lacking as you do the physical evidence to support that reality. New avenues of adjustment will have to be explored, to handle this new type of emotion.
These emotions are not easily explained to the people we generally turn to for support. How will they understand the genuine depth of your pain if they have not had such a friend themselves? Of course they cannot, and the lack of opportunity to share your pain can hinder the natural progress of the grieving process. Some people will become afraid to enter into such open sharing again. The human instinct to protect oneself is very strong, and even the prospect of new unexplored horizons may not make it seem worth the risk.
Is It Worth It?
As this is still a relatively new area, risk factors are very difficult to determine. Certainly one might think that it would be a pity to miss out on the possibility of a relationship that moves one to such a level of emotion. A person who tends in all the other facets of their life to shield themself from such deep emotion will probably not wish to take the risk. Life, real or virtual, or more likely the convoluted combination of the two, is full of pain and joy. Joy may not be recognisable if the pain has not been experienced. Pain may in fact be the direct result of the joy partaken in. Would it be best to miss the joy and thus avoid the pain?
Most people would agree that it would not. While the pain is fresh, the loss not totally accepted, hearts might be guarded. Having glimpsed this new horizon, the naturally curious and outgoing nature of humans will desire more. Even when such encounters invariably end in pain - a reminder that we are all flesh-and-blood people beneath virtual personas - they will have etched their place in our hearts. A new door to our humanity has been opened, and there will be many comings and goings. The goings will be hard, as hard as any to be experienced, but the comings, especially of a new true friend, would be a shame to miss.
The Biggest Risk
That once-in-a-lifetime friend, no less important for the lack of seeing their face, will be the hardest to lose. The individual that offers the perfect complement to ideas and dreams, when encountered in this environment, can create a huge mystique not easily relinquished. If that friend should happen to be wise, loving, funny and warmly open to sharing themself, the pain of that loss will be tremendous - a thing not to be trivialised, yet so far beyond description that the attempt to digest the meanings can be quite frustrating.
At this point it is necessary to get back in touch with the real self, to project it into the virtual world. When you have been touched by a soul, across the great expanses, that moves you to a new level of existence, it is a physical thing. As emotions are physical, tears can be touched, hearts hurt by things beyond their control. The very idea of the 'virtual world' reminds us of its true meaning. It is not a make-believe world, protective in its isolation of faces and bodies. It is functionally or effectively, but not formally, of its kind. A world not known to be a real place, yet so effective, so functional, that it creates itself as one in our hearts.
A friend is a friend no matter where they may be found. The loss of a special friend is among the saddest experiences known. The meeting, the bonding, the incredible expanding of minds, the joy, pain and dreams that can be shared, even the intense sadness of the loss, are all a part of that experience. It can be truly beautiful and rewarding. It can bring the world to a new level of human interaction. It can hurt, as badly as any real-life experience. If it is, if it does, it can change your life for ever.