In the past decade the scope of the average persons acquaintances has been greatly enlarged by the popularity of the World Wide Web. Since the invention of the postal system, and probably before, there have been a lot of relationships 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 aquaintances, before the internet, were based on face-to-face communications. The lack of that face-to-face interaction places many complicated facets within an online and other types of distant friendships that do not exist in the traditional type. 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-web era.
Some believe first impressions do not play as big a role in teh 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 people will reserve their judgment on individuals until further information is available.
Others contend it's not much to do with whether it's virtual or not. 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 for both types of contact.
People may not generally think of the slow forming of relationships as evolving judgment based on available information. They they may not even be aware a relationship is forming in thier real life encounters. In the virtual environment though, it is advisable in the sense that 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 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 may or may not want to hear, but if you're in hearing range you have no choice, 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 in it any further.
If the connection, as it often is, is of a positive nature, the opportunity exists to experience a new perspective through these acquaintances. An opportunity to form a close bond that is so new in its nature that today's participants are forming the futures "internet culture".
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. 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. These relationships are in an arena to themselves, quite apart from a friendship developed online for no more than friendships sake.
As has been mentioned, the close bonds that are possible are generally much more extended in their actual forming. Time must be given 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 by the news coverage on the subject, many people young and old have been fooled, often to their own peril. Maybe it is the knowledge of these accounts 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 acquaintance can be acquired 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. With the passage of time and interaction, as more subjects are discussed, participants get a chance to see aspects of individual personalities that are sometimes not apparent to real life friends. You are however, in RL more likely to catch the other person in perhaps 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 the written word. This can be very different to how they do that in real life conversation.
There is one major disadvantage, from most perspectives. The lack of body language has often been cited as the biggest deterrent to the forming of online relationships. Lacking this input that often helps to clarify a persons intentions, misunderstandings are frequent in the virtual environment. A remark meant to be taken as humorous can be instead taken as insulting and either a confrontation or the end of that particular interaction can occur.
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 truly experienced.
Once the bonding process has occurred, many new horizons will be opened to participants in most cases. Unlike the people we talk to daily, or even make a point to visit occasionally, there is no limit to who online friends may be. When the trust has been developed, and a 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 emphasis on the sharing of thoughts. Often a person will develop their own thoughts as they are bounced off friends from all over who offer that unique perspective they may have lacked. There is little concern that the friends of this environment are attracted to beauty, wealth or any of the other distractions that bother everyday relationships. Most of the trappings of being socially acceptable can be discarded, and the sharing of minds can dominate.
This set of circumstances provides the Internet friends the chance to view the world through the eyes of their counter parts from all walks of life. The effect can be the breaking down of barriers, even 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 in their uniqueness and complexity, so there will be those online friends that nothing from real life can parallel. 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.
When RL Intrudes
One of the aspects that make these friendships fragile is the lack of traditional interaction. Sometimes the tendency is to assign these friends with 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 life. Often it is a painful lesson when the fact that they are real human beings subject to the whims of life becomes apparent.
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 where ever it may occur often are pushed out of our awareness of the people we commune with online. As tragedy occurs all around our real lives, so does it 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 realize how vulnerable human beings are even when they offer only their minds. What might have seemed like a protective environment in which to interact makes itself known 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 they have never truly met. It might be Elvis or Buddy Holly or John Lennon. Five years ago Princess Diana died and it was obvious that many people mourned. How does one mourn the death though of a personal aquaintance they never truly met? They may not be able to express their sympathy to the loved ones of their friend who has died. Most probably they will not be able to attend the funeral and thus achieve the closure humans require. It will likely be difficult to accept the reality that friend is gone lacking the physical evidence to support it. 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 prevent the natural progression 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 new unexplored horizons may not make it worth the risk.
Is it worth it?
As this is still a relatively new arena, risk factors are very difficult to determine. Certainly one might assess though that a relationship that moves one to such a level of emotion would be sad to miss. A person who tends in all the other facets of their life to shield themselves from such deep moving 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 recognizable 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 to all that they are flesh and blood people beneath virtual personas, it has etched its place in their 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 by lack of seeing their face, will be the most hard to lose. The individual that offers the perfect compliment 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 of themselves, the pain of that loss will be tremendous. A thing not to be trivialized and yet so far beyond description 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, 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 are hurt by things beyond their control. The very idea of "virtual world" reminds us of its true meaning. It is not a make believe world, protective in it's 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, 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 forever.