How “Real” Are Social Media “Friends”?

In a conference call with a friend and business partner, I had one of those “Eureka” moments this week as we were discussing friendships we shared. Several times when names were raised, I responded—“Yes, I am friends with him/her.”

And very often, I also had to confess that I had never met some of the people we were discussing. Instead, our relationships had been born, nurtured, and developed online.

abelardEureka. I don’t have just a few friends I’ve never physically met, but many. Which raises a question about just what “friendship” is, and whether or not our virtual friends are “friends” in the classic sense. The question is hardly academic, as many congregations I work with retain a cautious approach to social media because, in part, they will not, or cannot, accept that online relationships are “real.”

But a thinker from my academic past can, I believe, ease that concern for many, while helping others understand just how profound social media friendships are.

Medieval Plug-in

My academic days are well behind me, but not the information I learned. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that my Eureka moment is rooted in the words of a medieval theologian who knew a thing or two about friendship—Peter Abelard.

Best known for his love affair with Heloise, Abelard was also a student of what it was to truly love God—a love that he believed had a counterpart in this life; charity. His ideas about what charity and love of God really are were heavily influenced by the works of Cicero. In fact, Abelard’s definition of what it is to love God comes directly from Cicero’s definition of friendship (amicitia, for you Latin lovers). But it’s how Abelard altered the understanding of charity that most interests us here.

Cicero, you see, stated that friendship was a reciprocal relationship—you act on behalf of one because you want the best for him or her, and because you expect similar actions in return.

Abelard stressed only the first idea. That you care for the fate of your friend, with no concern for reciprocity.

It is a genuinely selfless gift. One gives, and expects nothing in return.

A selflessness that Abelard knew a great deal about personally, if you know about his tragic relationship with Heloise—a woman he loved, bore a child with, and suffered mutilation because of. After moving to a monastery, he never saw Heloise again, though he retained a deep, abiding friendship with her using 12th century social media—letters.


Abelard’s understanding of charity (and friendship, in his later letters), could well be used to define online friendships that we develop today. We meet many people online with whom we develop genuine, deeply felt, and life-changing relationships, though we may never personally meet. (On the other side, I find that these relationships increase the chance for meeting—at conferences, when I travel, etc.—and to date I have rarely been disappointed when we met face-to-face.) These relationships can be genuine, deeply felt, and important when they are developed in the contest of friendship as Peter understood it. Doing well for people because you want the best for them … not looking for or expecting something in return.

In fact, this is how many of my own online friendships have begun. People post tweets, Facebook posts, etc., that express a need. And I (and many others) respond to that need because we genuinely enjoy sharing useful information.

This is not to say this is the only use for social media—marketers, for example, see in social media a one-way relationship going the other way. They sweep the landscape looking for clients.

This is fine, too, but it is not how communities engaging in social media get the most from it. Rather, it’s that shared experience of helping one another that creates dynamic, and powerful, communities of people who often have never met one another personally.

But they are, indeed, friends.

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