As the Internet continues to consume our daily lives, it is only natural that relationships are formed online. Although the term “friend” may be defined differently amongst individuals, classical definitions such as that attributed by Aristotle restrict true friends to face-to-face interactions. This definition continues to evolve, though, and the criteria for friendship has changed considerably throughout time and technology. This study on online friendship was conducted as part of the final project for ICS 668: Social Informatics. A survey was created and posted on Amazon Turk for individuals to answer, and consisted of questions that concerned the relationship between offline and online friendships. The link to the survey can be found here. The introduction to the paper is provided below, along with references.
There is little doubt today that the Internet has brought upon an environment that seems to starkly contrasts what the offline world has to offer. As humans naturally tend to be more social creatures, it was inevitable that the increasingly ease of access to the web would result in the presence of massive online communities. These communities include social media giants such as FaceBook and Instagram, discussion forums centered around almost any subject one could think of, and massively multiplayer online video games where hundreds of players could exist together on a single server. It was also inevitable, then, that these social components of the web would allow for relationships to start. Persistent online communities and chat systems allowed people to interact effortlessly with each other on common grounds, and friendships would grow. Today, it is not uncommon for an individual to have friends from which they met and know exclusively online. There is still debate, however, whether fostering online friendships is worthwhile, and whether or not the definition of friendship should still be bound to of- fline values in a society where our online presence is becoming almost permanent. Indeed, online and offline friends can provide very different aspects to a friendship, and as such they are often perceived independently of each other. But are these differences significant enough for online and offline friendships to still be considered as separate entities in today’s digital landscape? This may be a more meaningful question to explore, rather than arguing about what constitutes as genuine friendship. This emperical study aims to bring upon insight to that question by turning to individuals who are already active in online communities and asking them if they feel comfortable with describing online friends as on the same level of offline friends.
The value of online friendships have been a major area of research over the past couple of decades. For example, numerous studies have been dedicated to why people look to the web for companionship, and the social aspects that keep them invested in such a commitment [8,9,10]. Perhaps one of the more important, and controversial issues, however, is whether or not online friendships can be considered genuine. A set of guidelines from which friendships are often compared to is that defined by Aristotle. There are three types of friendships from which Aristotle references, including friendship based on utility, friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on goodness. The latter guideline is the definition most studies refer to when looking to judge online friendships [3,4,6]. According to Aristotle, this definition is superior to the other two because it is based on the virtue of two people, and their admiration for each other. In Fr¨oding and Peterson’s study of virtual friendships, it is also stated that this definition of friendship is maintained through three conditions: that the friendship is mutually recognized, that the friends involved spend time together, and that the admiration for each other is based on the virtues recognized in each other. It is argued in their paper that these conditions are difficult to fulfill online when individuals are allowed to be selective of what they reveal about themselves. In addition, people that spend time together physically are able to experience the same situations and thus virtues are able to be recognized in each other. This argument is a focal point in a study by Cocking and Matthews, and also in a study by McFall [2,7]. Also based on Aristotelian principles, McFall proposes that single-filter communication, in which a person does not need to filter their experiences as they are physically shared amongst others, is not possible in a text-based setting.
On the other side of the spectrum are the counterviews to Aristotle’s definition of friendship. In an article by Kaliarnta, she argues that by viewing offline friendship as the “natural” way of progression, we are limiting ourselves to possibilities of higher levels of friendship in the online environment [6,9]. Kaliarnta recognizes that people can be selective about what they reveal, but at the same time, they can also choose to be more open about themselves without any obligations. In a study by Henderson and Gilding, they found that online communication sometimes surpassed the level of affection and emotion of parallel face-to-face communication . Online, you are seldom judged on your background and appearance. This pseudonymity is a driving point for many people to keep online relations . Individuals who seek companionship online or are able to make online friends were often found to be introverted or socially withdrawn in the offline world . At the same time, those who were willing to reveal more personal information were rewarded with heightened self-discovery . Kaliarnta also mentions that while there is still the lack of physical interaction, single-filtering is very possible through mediums such as video games, which allow for individuals to experience unique situations together. Elder also provides similar counterarguments to Kaliarnta, but instead of countering Aristotle’s conditions of friendship, he provides aspects of online friendship which actually meets those conditions .
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