This year I’ve been fortunate to meet many of my edublogger friends in person. It started with Learning 2.0 where I got to meet Jeff Utecht, Clay Burell, Wes Fryer, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson (and I also was fortunate to spend lots of time with Susan Sedro, who I had met the year before for the first time); continued to my trip to Doha, Qatar where I got to meet Julie Lindsay; and finally followed me right back home to Bangkok where the wonderful Chrissy Hellyer stayed with us for just under a week (and this doesn’t even begin to include all the other amazing educators I was so fortunate to meet – and now consider my friends – on all these occasions).

The QA Team

As I’m sure many of you would agree, in my experience meeting an online acquaintance in person is exciting, but not surprising.

When I opened the door to see Chrissy, it was like an old friend coming to visit – not some stranger I was meeting for the first time. As Chrissy said, it was my first time meeting her “body,” but we were already good friends from our online conversations. Our f2f conversations simply continued from the last time we spoke – via Skype. In fact, what truly amazes me, is that often my “online friends” know more about what’s going on in my life than my “physical” friends and family.

Being constantly connected means that when Chrissy and I met for the first time I actually knew more about what was “going on” with her than I did when my oldest friend from high school, Martine, showed up for her visit the following weekend. Not that I don’t keep in touch with Martine – we e-mail regularly, occasionally have a phone or Skype call, and we always spend time together when we’re in the same country (not so easy when she lives in England and I’m in Thailand) – but it’s not the same regular, consistent communication I have with my network (almost all of whom definitely do not live in Thailand).

Kent & Susan

I have to admit, I’ve almost started getting a little irritated with my friends and family that aren’t online with any regularity. They miss the photos I share (unless I send them a direct e-mail or remind them by phone), they don’t get my in-depth vacation recaps from my personal blog until I come home for the summer and do my annual slideshow, and they certainly don’t get the inside scoop on my daily life here in Bangkok because by the time I get home for summer holidays I have to rush through all the stories in whatever limited time I have (and usually I have to tell them over and over again as I go from city to city visiting – by the end of the summer most of my interesting stories have really lost their luster).

So I guess what really surprises me is how so many other people react when I tell them that I’m meeting an old friend for the first time. The confused, somewhat awkward look on their face – clearly not sure exactly what to say. How can you be old friends if you’ve never met? I know they’re thinking, but they’re always too polite to say anything.

When I really take a minute to think about it, though, those virtual friends are actually far more in tune with my life than so many of my “old” friends and family. They all know when I’ve been home sick, or when I’m traveling, or what’s new and exciting in Bangkok. And when they show up at my door, or wave from across the conference hall, or show me around their school, it’s like we’ve been friends and colleagues for ages.

A couple of thoughts about this paradox of virtual friendship spring to mind:

Martine, Kim & Chrissy

First, because of this and other online-connection experiences I’ve had over the last two years or so, I think I’m beginning to understand the sorts of networks that students and teenagers are creating when they SMS each other every five minutes, or use the library computers to go on Facebook – behaviors which often frustrate and irritate teachers and parents. They’re not necessarily just goofing off – they’re creating, maintaining and enlarging their own personal networks of people who genuinely wish them well and provide them with emotional support.

Second, the old argument against technology being “impersonal” or alienating, that it creates drones who stare in loneliness at separate screens instead of engaging in healthy human interaction, is looking even less likely than it ever did. Whenever humans invent a seemingly “impersonal” new form of technology – whether it be the written word, the telephone, or the computer – we always seem to quickly find ways to use that “impersonal” technology to bring us all closer together. And that’s a very encouraging thought.

What do you think? How do your “virtual friendships” compare to the “real-life” version?

23 thoughts on “Virtual Friendships

  1. I totally agree Kim. I met some of my local Twitter friends at an unconference 2 weeks ago and it was great to talk f2f but it also made connections since then even more meaningful as I could really put a “name to a face” or vice versa.
    Our Oz/NZ educators meetings on Sundays have also been a way to connect with Twitter friends and although it is not f2f we have our web cams and get to see who we are talking too. Perhaps one day I will be able to meet some of my overseas Twitter/Web friends.
    I think the more we use this way of communicating the more in tune we will be with the young people of today and tomorrow.

  2. Hi Kim,
    This hits home for me. I kept up a running blog for about three years and met some great people online. When I moved to Connecticut two years ago, the first thing I did was to connect with some of them in person. Here I was in a new place with instant real friends! And there was no getting to know them–we knew all about one another. My running blog was truly my virtual family for a time. Though I don’t have time to blog there any longer, I ran into one CT friend just this weekend as she visited the Marine Corp Half in my hometown. Like old times…:)

  3. This reminds me of some song lyrics:

    “There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.
    Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?”

    I hope you’re forgive the obscure Muppets reference. It’s from “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” which appeared both in the original Muppet Movie in 1979 and in Muppets from Space in 1999.

    That idea of being “old friends” before meeting isn’t quite the same in the movies, but it seems relevant for our virtual relationships. I agree that we always find ways to use these “impersonal” technologies to connect with each other. I remember crying and feeling real loss after the death of a member of a listserv in 1997 or so. The emotional connections in that group were very genuine.

    Working from home means many of my relationships are virtual. I’d been in my current job for almost a year before I met anyone I work with in person. If I couldn’t use the technology to form real relationships, I’d feel very disconnected from my team.

  4. Dead on. You’ve identified something key that applies even more strongly to those to whom we are supposed to stay connected. I feel a sense of frustration with my family and friends who don’t “do” social networking. I’m willing to mail my grandmother pictures of my kids to the nursing home, but I’d like to think the rest would keep moving forward and not “get off the bus” at email and websurfing.

    I update Facebook’s mini feed daily. So, if you are my friend on Facebook, which means you are a personal friend already, you know when the bunnies ate all the carrots in the garden, when swimming clicked for my daughter, what book I’ve read most recently, etc. And I know those things about those friends too. I feel much less in touch with friends who say “what’s wrong with old-fashioned email?” as one just did yesterday.

    It’s the stuff that isn’t worth an individual emailed message that makes the connections stronger. It’s why we can feel so close to colleagues even if all we really have in common with them is proximity. It’s the 21st century equivalent of just “hanging around.”

    You are right–technology isn’t alienating unless there’s already something alienating going on. People who are personal by nature are going to invent ways to use technology personally!

  5. Great post, great points. I too get angry with my friends that are not online or not as engaged as I am. It does feel like a bit of a slight. My college roommate, which I consider my best friend, only has 1 hotmail address that he barely checks. When I ask him to look at a site or to join me “somewhere” he mumbles something about time and moves on to a different topic.

    I have two thoughts. One, I wonder of knowing everything about me ruins the fun of getting together to catch-up. Two, or does it make it better. We all know the problem with prolonged disengagement in a persons life. You meet 3 or 4 years later, you sit down, you grab a drink and say, “What have you been up to?” Half way through the story you realize you never really cared in the first place. (Sorry 90% of high school and college buds)

    Maybe staying connected like this keeps you engaged enough to care. Does that sound horrible…I think that sounds horrible.

    Please tell me I’m not the only one who agonizes of adding facebook friends that I really don’t want to catch up with again :)

  6. You’re right on both counts (understanding kids who are networked, and no way this technology is alienating). People don’t appreciate that when you finally meet the body you’ve already met the mind, which is usually the part you like the best. Without having established that commonality, when bodies meet they often find that the mind might be out of synch, whereas that rarely happens in reverse. Well, I’m not sure if it ever happens. In any event, Webheads lore is full of tales of meeting after long online relationships and bodies taking up right where the mind left off.

  7. Hi!

    Many, many excellent points…let me just add on to a couple of them. First, I definitely see your point about students getting on-line to create & interact (though it irritates many teachers and parents). They are developing the skills that will serve them well in their future by building on a new type of literacy. In the future (and even right now) literacy is not just about being able to read and write-it’s being able to re-form content to personal needs and knowing where to find information. Additionally, they are developing a much more democratic information base than we’ve ever had before because now you can find out what actual people think from around the world-from themselves-rather than reading it in a paper, textbook, on TV or the radio.

    Secondly, we spend a lot of time worrying about the dangers of on-line life but rarely spend time considering how it can be a safe place, especially for teenagers. I’m not saying we shouldn’t work with students to explain the dangers, but oftentimes a “virtual” world can become a safe place for a person to express themselves. For shy students, the anonymity of on-line communication can provide a place for them to express their opinions, which they might never be able to do in a full classroom of people. For those unsure of themselves virtual friendships are initially built based on shared interests & ideas, taking away the emphasis on outward appearance and fashion. The Internet also opens up a wider selection of people to socialize with, so students are no longer restricted to the social pool of their school-giving them greater opportunity to develop their own identity. Perhaps having these types of positive interactions on-line will help student become more confident in their f2f relationships too.

  8. I am very glad you blogged about this == because it has been on my thoughts too.

    I realized that if I were to die tomorrow — and all the people I consider “friends” were to come to my funeral, over 65% of them would be meeting for the first time F2F because they are my friends on the network. Would it perhaps be the same for you??

    I have been lucky enough this last year to be able to meet A LOT of people I previously only knew either virtually or at least casually F2F (like at an occasional conference). But due to twitter, blogs, and ustreams/chat — I have gotten to know them much better and when we met F2F — it was like a homecoming, not an initial meeting.

    When I met Jessica Pederson, it was like we had known each other for ever….though it was the first time. When I spent the day with David Jakes as he gave me a tour of Illinois, we had already established a twitter friendship, which was a foundation to build on. When I flew to Pennsylvania for SLA and met Konrad for the first time, we were kindred spirits and clicked right away. And when I had dinner with the Bretags and the Pennington’s — there was no awkwardness, we were already pals.

    I am glad you also mentioned the frustration of friends that are NOT online as much. My online friends knew more about my recent trips and loved the pictures. My offline friends, well it is like dragging out the “slide show” — they really care about me, but they don’t get what I do — other than Jen loves her computer and dismiss it at that.

    I do have to say that my virtual friendships are ENHANCED when they become F2F. But I also know that I have many virtual friends (yourself included) that I have no idea when (or if) we would ever meet. But in time of need, or in time of great joy — if I had to make a list of who I would call…..more oft than naught — the list would be highly populated with virtual friends.

    Thanks for letting me share.

  9. @Jane

    It is amazing to be able to put a real person to the mind/thoughts we’ve been connecting to for months/years! I wish I was attending NECC this year because I know I would meet so many more people! I guess it will have to wait another year…


    This is exactly what happened when I came to ISB this year – I already “knew” Justin and Dennis so well through their blogs, it was like walking into a read-made team. Think of the implications for changing jobs a few years down the road! Talk about an easy transition!


    Who doesn’t love the Muppets? Sometimes I think it’s amazing that people can be so shortsighted about technology – I love the video ‘Introducing the Book’ to remind people that all technology is new at some point. I’m sure there were great resisters to the phone, and those same type of people know are asking why we send e-mail instead of making a phone call. Ironic…


    I love “the 21st century equivalent of just ‘hanging around'”! What a perfect description! I have to admit that I never really thought of myself as an “early adopter” but I guess compared to your average computer user, I kind of am…


    “Staying connected like this keeps you engaged enough to care” – that’s an interesting idea. I definitely think I would like to be this engaged with all of my “old” friends, but I don’t think being this connected would be enough to get me interested in someone with whom I don’t already share common interests. So, I totally understand your agony about Facebook friends – and I will continue wishing that more of my “old” friends will make the effort to get connected – because I already care about them!


    Yes! Exactly! “When you finally meet the body, you’ve already met the mind, which is usually the part you like best.” Love it – perfectly stated.


    Love your points about literacy and democracy. I’m imagining a classroom where these types of communication are embraced – what a supportive community of learners we could create…


    Thanks! I knew you would relate to this post – I think I remember you wrote something similar a while back :)

    Enhanced is a great way to put it – the solid friendship is already there, meeting in person just adds another dimension. I wonder if that dimension is every really necessary though, or is it just nice?

  10. Direct Message via Twitter – 1 minute
    A virtual conversation – 1 hour
    An online project – 1 month
    Network Connection – nearly 2 years (so far ……… )
    F2F meeting – Cemented a lifetime of friendship!

    Kim, meeting you f2f was just the “icing on the cake” for a friendship that I feel so privileged to be a part of. I have no doubt, that even if we’d never met in “real time”, the passion for teaching with technology and the network of connections we share, would still guarantee our virtual friendship in the truest sense of the word.
    I hope that I can return the hospitality and have you stay with me in my beautiful little corner of the world one day!

  11. Wow! Kim what a great post. I am still a bit new to all of this, but I am starting to make some great connections and friendships. These new relationships, the ones I value the most, are beyond just education. I am realizing that as I open myself up, I am finding many like minded people.

    I also agree with this line: I’ve almost started getting a little irritated with my friends and family that aren’t online with any regularity.

    I have more in depth connections with “strangers” online than my closest friends. Very well written thanks. I will send this post to the friends I am annoyed with…

  12. @Jabiz

    Thanks! Isn’t it amazing the friends you can find online? We truly are tapping into the long tail of interests/beliefs/attitudes – and to me that is so empowering and exciting!

  13. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle of the luddite clan and the early adopter clan. I purposely don’t twitter, I don’t blog every day and I have not formed any close friendships online that do not exist in the real world. That being said, I do have some genial online professional relationships. Because I was born in the “Gutenberg Era” and learned to make friends f2f, I hold onto the belief that there are parts of our brain that need the f2f element in order for a friendship to “hold fast.” During my research about social networking online, I found a lot of articles that look at this phenomenon of f2f interaction that occurs at the brain level and how that differs from online interactions. Not at all to say that our brains do not and HAVE NOT changed. I think they are changing to incorporate new definitions of friendship, especially in the younger children. What’s your take on this?

  14. @Alecia

    I definitely think our brains are changing – and (obviously) I think we are creating new definitions of friendship. I certainly consider many of the educators I’ve met online to be my friends, so many of them actually know more about my day-to-day life than my “old” friends. The ability to connect based on ideas, philosophy, and thinking without having to worry about location means I’m able to make friends that I connect with on a deeper level without having to worry about where we are in the world. No longer are my friends only in my neighborhood or at my workplace – now I can make friends with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

  15. Kim, great post. I think being online has changed the whole way I approach collegiality and learning as a professional educator. However it bothers me that I spend break times online more often than going to the staff room for f2f conversation. There needs to be a balance in your own daily life. on the other hand I know you are talking more about the international connections where f2f is not possible but where online connectivity allows us to get to know a person very well. I love the short snippets of conversations I have each day, just touching base, catching up, asking questions, reaffirming someone is out there listening and willing to respond.

  16. @Julie

    I totally agree about balance – I actually intentionally go into the break room for lunch every day just so I can see and talk to people f2f (preferably about things other than technology too!). But, you’re right, I was referring to international connections where f2f is not possible on a regular basis :) Either way, it’s always a good reminder to aim for balance in your life.

  17. Kim-
    I have to say that you’re right on with your post here relating to virtual friendships. I am facebook friends with many of the parents of the students that I teach. Some teachers would be really uncomfortable with this, and I can certainly respect their feelings, especially if they don’t understand the power of inter-networking. I find that I’ve become much more sensitive and understanding of the busy lives of the students and families that I work with. When I read a status/twitter update from a parent about “forgetting gym shoes” on their way out the door, I develop an appreciation and sensitivity for how challenging a typical day in the life of a parent can be. Likewise, our parents have commented that they’ve really enjoyed reading my status/twitter updates as well…it makes them feel connected and involved to the school in ways that were not previously possible.

    Finally, I find the same things regarding asynchronous inter-connections that you’ve found…they simply strengthen our f2f conversations because they allow us to get to know each other better. In a 5-10 minute f2f conversation, you simply don’t have time to share recent photos, short video clips, or to share the many small triumphs and tribulations that we each experience on a regular basis. But with a facebook profile and a few other tools, you can share these things with many others.

    Now I don’t advocate that all my teacher buddies start friending parents and engaging in these conversations. I am a big believer in constructivist learning principles, so I feel strongly that each person needs to interact with these inter-networks in their own personal way. But once an individual does start to get involved, I believe they’ll find many of the same things that you describe in your wonderful post!

  18. @mjmonty,

    You are definitely connected! I can definitely see how those constant updates can help both you and the families you work with feel more connected. However, it probably is very important to you to keep those postings on FB and Twitter to the more professional side…

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