Friend request: Accept or decline?

Most of us are ‘friends’ with a host of ‘like-minded’ folks on social media, even though the social media playbook on friendships is different from the real-life one. We find out the rules of engagement of virtual alliances

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Sat 23 Apr 2022, 9:37 PM

Mama said “Don’t talk to strangers” — which could very well have deterred people from connecting with others in real life. So, I decided not to displease mama and have a pen pal instead. Twenty-five years later, we are still friends, living in different parts of the world. His name is John, but I call him Frankie. To him, I am Angie.

The strangest thing about our relationship is that we are not connected on social media. We started off with writing letters (yes, snail mail) and stopped at emails. But I have never known a stronger bond. Our friendship has remained unbroken despite my ever-growing friend list on FB, where I don’t feel a deep connection with anyone.

There are several opinions on the permanency of social media friendships, and it remains divided between wariness and usefulness. But in defence of its usefulness is a group of empty-nesters I know, living in an apartment complex in Bangalore. This group comprises women over-65, mostly widowed empty nesters whose WhatsApp group has saved at least three members from taking extreme steps due to loneliness.

One member of the group, a 74-year-old who I call mama, told me they were forced to accept social media as a means of support and bonding. “Till five years ago, none of us knew of FB or WhatsApp. Today, it is the only way we keep each other motivated. We check on each other every morning and night. We live on the Internet as much as we live in the community. To suggest that you cut off socialising online would seem preposterous. It is best to shift your focus to making the most of it.”

I do suppose, then, social media friends — or acquaintances as I’d like to call them — are the newest way to expand your social circle, whether you bank on capitalising it for your gain or not. In no uncertain terms, I agree that it has helped me build a wider network of acquaintances and, at the same time, helped rekindle a sense of camaraderie with long-lost friends.

A method of communication

Dubai-based PR executive at Aviareps ME Abdullah Mansoor believes that social media friendships could be as deep and as meaningful as any other friendship we are familiar with. “Just as real-world friendships develop based on mutual understanding, similar interests, shared respect and other factors, virtual relationships transpire in the same manner. Social media is just another way of communicating with people, even if it may be limited in some ways. However, I don’t believe a virtual friendship can be sustainable unless it transitions to a real-world one at some point.”

Drawing from his experience, he says social media has allowed people to find kindred spirits. “As a person who enjoys reading, I have developed friendships with like-minded people online. My online friend — now offline too — is based in Sharjah and we often meet to exchange books and recommendations of a new read.”

What started as a mutually enjoyable friendship shifted into a different plane as it developed into a stronger bond. “Sometimes it helps to have a friend who is not in your immediate circle… you know you can share a safe space [with this person], without feeling any pressure or doubt that whatever you share is going to be heard by other people you know,” he says.

Abdullah says lately there has been a sudden rush to reach out to strangers (read: friend requests on social media) for the simple reason that we are often attracted to people who portray the values we deem worthy. “Which is pretty much the case in the real world too. Though it might not be easy to make long-lasting friendship on social media, for extroverted people it could be an effective tool to find interesting people and build valuable friendships.”

No replacement for backyard play

Principal of Global Indian International School, Abu Dhabi, Dr Heena Rachh says that in the post-pandemic scenario, the meaning of social media friends has taken on a different meaning altogether. “Before Covid, I’d have felt differently,” she says, “but the pandemic has opened our eyes to the fact that friends on social media, however distant, have helped people stay calm during the worst time of their lives. It was as if everyone was suddenly pitching in with support — in whichever way — to keep the others going.”

She gives an example of how an online friend helped make her decision of moving to the UK easy. “I befriended someone from the UK on FB and soon became good friends, inasmuch that I depended on him to give me the real picture of life there. Of course, consulting agencies could have given me the answers but nothing to replace a friend who shared my ideologies and who’d grown up there. In their own ways, social media friends have their own merits.”

In today’s world, particularly among the younger generation, there is a sudden need to reach out to strangers, which is rather alarming, but it is the reality we live in. This sense of ‘who has more friends’ might lead to a certain level of anxiety and stress, but it boils down to one simple fact: that social media makes it easy to expand our friends circle because it is only a click away.

“Add to it the lack of effort [in areas] such as time spent travelling to meet real friends, an effort to dress up or spend on dining out, makes social media friendships a lot easier,” Dr Heena adds. “But it is no replacement for a friend you have shared the backyard with.”

Shared interest is key

For Bangalore-based independent journalist Ruth D’Souza Prabhu, a select few social media contacts have turned into dear friendship simply because they made an effort to meet offline to nurture a relationship that went beyond transactional.

“Unless you take the trouble, most social media contacts tend to remain professional. In short, they can be meaningful, but you must work on them just as you would any other important friendship,” she explains.

“For me, online friendships have begun over common interests — such as food and independent journalism — and this helps especially when these contacts are based in other cities or countries. It helps in many ways: they become your sounding boards and often bring in a new perspective.”

Ruth adds that most social media friendships start out being transactional or interest-based, addressing only one aspect of your life, whereas a childhood friend or work friend has a more intense connect with you and your personal history.

She says she reaches out to people (strictly) to make a work-related contact, never to begin an intimate friendship. “I am quite a reclusive person that way and social media for me is for networking and not really finding and making friends. I find social media has helped reconnect friends who have lost touch and possibly it has made it easier for those who are shy to initiate conversations online.”

Dubai-based Ananda Shakespeare, CEO and founder of Shakespeare Communications, echoes this sentiment. “I don’t think social media contacts are as deep and meaningful as long-standing real-world friendships.”

“Perhaps the younger generation has a different perspective to mine,” she explains. “On social media, we only see aspects of people they choose to share — or create… everyone’s life looks like a bed of roses. There are [very] few who share the whole truth. Close friends share the rollercoaster of life together, the good and the bad, not simply engage in box ticking to show appreciation of their last meal or outfit.”

She confesses to having professional relationships online considering her clients are based all over the world. “I’ve met many professional contacts online and then we’ve had meetings offline to strengthen the relationship and build trust to do business. Covid made it hard to develop these relationships on a personal level too. I don’t think anything replaces face-to-face communication. So much of our communication is non-verbal and it’s much easier to understand others in person, in my opinion.”

Ananda says she is also wary of random people trying to “befriend” her on social media platforms. “Although fundamentally people want to be connected, there are too many stories about fraudsters and con artists floating around. I have over a thousand connections on Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms but I stress that the most powerful element of connecting with strangers is for us to express sympathy or get behind a cause. Where human tragedy is unfolding, social media allows us to view the reality on the ground, without media bias. Real people telling their real stories is a powerful tool for change. Connecting with strangers should, in theory, help us create a better global society, with greater empathy and compassion for each other.”

As an extrovert, Ananda finds it easy to make connections online or even when waiting in line for coffee. “Social media has made it easy for us to find our ‘tribe,” she adds.

Building bonds over time

Dubai-based clinical psychologist Dr Tooba says that for people with social anxiety an online environment provides a perfect forum for practising interaction with minimal risk. “It is natural to connect with people with shared interests, hobbies or cultures. Before the Internet, this was difficult to achieve, but technology has made it so much easier to interact. This is when you realise that social media can provide a support system you didn’t realise was out there.’

The whole point of making friends online is to find people who enrich your life, she says. “To find the right set of people and build relationships take time. Some friendships deepen over time because there must be more to the relationship than just one shared preference or experience. Friendships that flourish require an investment of time, energy, and support.”

However, she adds that there is a huge difference between a real friend and an online friend, and it is tested only when faced with a conflict or disagreement. “Having online friends doesn’t put you in a position where you must deal with conflict face to face and in the moment. Body language and tone of voice are absent. Often these disagreements can be solved with the click of a block button. On the other hand, face-to-face interactions and resolving conflicts teaches us the critical problem solving and conflict resolution skills to gauge other non-verbal skills that not only help us in relationships but also in other areas of life.”

Meanwhile, India-based educator (specialising in pre-school content development) and budding poet Payal Kalra says she found her tribe online. “I joined a group of Amrita Pritam (Indian poet) fans where we discussed her works. People had very insightful contributions to make. Somewhere along the line, people began sharing their work and soon we became a strong group of friends,” she recalls.

Soon, a young poet from Punjab reached out to her, and they became friends. “He was much younger to me, but we connected on so many levels. Talking to him helped me deal with my child’s late teen issues since he belonged in that age group and had a different perspective. Now that he is getting married, I am invited (with family). I will be meeting him for the first time.”

After all, she says, friendship is a relationship we choose. “Be it on any platform… but the trick is to choose well.”

The company you keep

I think social media is like a crowded airport terminal where everyone is allowed in but where no one feels particularly excited to be in, given its transitory nature. But the integration of social media into our lives has contributed significantly in the establishment of friendships, personal and professional.

A recently-conducted research in the US found that social media plays a critical role in connecting teens to new friends, allowing teens to learn more about new friends and get to know them better. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of teens who have made a new friend online say they have met new friends on a social media platform. Two-thirds (62 per cent) of teens say they’ve shared their social media username with a brand-new friend to stay in touch.

Social media has transitioned from being a “terrible way to spend your time” to “the easiest way to connect” because you’d be struggling to find something similar in real life with that level of both specificity and ease.

I have made some pretty good friends and reconnected with old ones online. My reasons to accept friend requests vary, led more by curiosity than any vested interest. For example, I have no interest in what people find in River Thames, but I am curious to know what obscure ideas bring people together. I am also inspired by strangers who decide to travel and return married, and people keen on reviving forgotten recipes.

Trust me, you can’t judge me by the company I keep.

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