online friends < real life friends.

"Relationships" is one of those highly sensitive soapbox issues for me. There are people who can talk for days about global warming, technology trends, politics, and childhood obesity. I'm not one of those people. There are actually only a few topics that I will talk about extensively without pausing for a comedic break. I'm one of those types of people who doesn't like things to get too serious, but there are subjects that certainly lend themselves to require a different tone.

First things first.

I'm not an expert, nor am I self-proclaimed relationships expert. I'm not a psychologist, psychotherapist, counselor, or human behavior specialist. I'm actually a bit of an ordinary Jane, who, believe or not, has had some pretty screwed up relationships in her past. Friends, boyfriends, colleagues, you name it. But, like most human beings, I've learned (some of) the error of my ways. Every relationship that has taken hold in my life has obviously been purposed to do so, and I regret none of them.

You see, even though I don't often admit it, I lean toward being a people person. I like to ask questions. I like to get to know people quickly - their favorites, dislikes, hobbies, and like. I like to find out what makes them tick. This is probably 90% of the reason why when I was in college I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be a reporter. Thank goodness this never came to fruition, because I'd probably be fired after my first day when my producer learned I took 5 hours to finish an interview.

Which is what brings me to the title of this particular post.

It may seem to be a no-brainer that real life friendships trump online friendships. But, truth be told, this might actually have been a no-brainer thought from someone from 1998, not 2008.

With today's social networking sites, it's far easier to friend someone on Facebook and MySpace, and keep up via wall posts, tags, messages, photos, and status updates. It's easier to drop a "hey how's it going?" line to someone you've already established a relationship with, and still claim that as a relationship. Face it (no pun intended), it's just easier. We can manipulate these social networking sites to play as an extension of our real world relationships. Here, the tool is simply doing its job. Use a social networking site with friends you already know, and voila, you stay in the know. Instant "sort-of" relationship.

So there's one type: Previous face-to-face shallow relationships that blossom into look-but-don't-touch relationships that are basically confined to social networking sites.

Secondly, take for example a relationship that was all created via the World Wide Web. Let's say it was birthed from a tweet, a Skype call, or a comment on a blog. Next thing you know, you're having daily chats via IM. And then video convos. You're e-mailing back and forth. Your friend seems to be the coolest person you know. They quote your favorite movies, know your favorite songs, and know that you call your cat "The Devil" when she's thrown up in your shoes. For the seventieth time. So here's your second type: the online "buddy." No explanation needed.

Thirdly, is your real life friend. Sure, the first two types all involve relationships with real, living, breathing beings who walk on two legs (in most cases). But this third relationship involves human contact. It involves hugs. Eye contact. Hearing laughter in real time -- it doesn't involve a delay of streaming over the internet or being bounced from a satellite orbiting the earth and back down to your cell phone.

There are problems with all relationships, of course, because it involves one person on both ends. But when these problems arise in online relationships...I'd believe that problems can only lend themselves to be on the extreme right or left of a given situation. If things get ugly -- that's it. I don't have to call, I don't have to e-mail, I don't have to IM you. Check "block user" under privacy settings right? It's a lot easier to brush someone off and render their friendship useless. The entire give-and-take process of real life friendships have little to hold on to in the online world.

What was once just a comment on a blog, a simple Skype call, or a tweet, has been reduced to just that, yet again. This is where the issues often found in a real life relationships don't play fair with the rules of a broadband connection. If I was friends with Colette and met her for coffee every week, I can't just stop meeting her for coffee. If I discontinue seeing her, she'll know something's up, and not just think I've gotten busy with work or school or kids. She's seen me vulnerable. She knows more about me than my favorite line from my favorite movie. She's seen the good and the bad. It's a bit harder to disguise your personal issues in a conversation when you can't use a backspace to erase what you didn't mean to say.

I've gotten a bit touchy-feely over the years, I know. And I simply can't shake the human, relational part of me that wants to see, hear, and touch everyone I meet online. (I'm really hoping that didn't come out really creepy) Meeting someone via IM is not the same as holding their hand in a firm handshake and trying to hold their gaze at the same time.

This is why real life friends will always trump online friends. Don't get me wrong, social networks have proven to provide a pretty strong web of friendships. I've literally seen what Flickr friendships mean to people, and hear what podcasting friendships can do. It's networking on a different level, but I'm not sure if it holds a candle to a friendship with someone who has no care whether you're a fine photographer or that you watch their favorite TV show. And if an online relationship blossoms into a real life one, even better. It's the human contact that makes all the difference.

It's been said that tone can't always be deciphered in an IM box. And it's totally true. Neither should a friendship be confined to a protocol stack.