Are These Social Media Relationships Real?

He and I have never met.  And yet, he sent me the following message on Twitter a few days ago:

You are very quiet at the moment. Is all well? (Or maybe you are away.) See you soon (virtually speaking), I hope.

This message was prompted by the fact that I hadn’t published a blog post or tweeted on Twitter since March 13.  His was the first of several messages I received recently from folks I’ve only ever “met” via this blog or on Twitter.  They suspected something was up, and took the time to check.  As those messages accumulated,  I began to wonder if all of us were underestimating the strength of the human connections that are created and then flourish virtually via social media tools.

If you listen to the social media skeptics, you’d find it hard to believe that people who haven’t met physically (but interact only virtually) could possibly have a “real” relationship.  Even social media proponents have on occasion suggested that the true value of social media tools is that the virtual interactions they enable pave the way for old-fashioned, face to face interactions.   Given my recent experience, however, I’m beginning to question if that’s right.  Granted, I’m working primarily from my own experience and some anecdotal evidence from friends, yet this (admittedly unscientific) sample suggests that many of us are finding that some of our more meaningful social relationships are virtual.  And, that’s not necessarily something to be pitied.

No matter where you stand on the subject of social media, it would be wise to think objectively about the nature of the relationships you have. How do you determine if any relationship is “real”?  For me, it’s more than a matter of physical proximity.  Instead, I’d suggest evaluating the “reality” of your relationships on the basis of some or all of the following questions:  Like the inhabitants of the Cheers Bar, do these folks  “know your name“? Are they in regular conversation with you?  Do they offer information or questions that help you learn and grow? Are they supportive? Do they notice when you’re not participating?  And, when you are not around, do they check on your well-being?   If you can answer yes to these questions, does it truly matter if they live in your town or on the other side of the world?

Ray Oldenburg suggested 20 years ago that most of us need three places in our lives:  the first place is our home; the second place is our workplace; and the Third Place is where we engage with the wider community.  For some, this Third Place is their place of worship, their social club, the barber shop or their equivalent of the Cheers Bar.  For increasing numbers of us, that Third Place in an online community that interacts via social media tools.

When I received the various messages inquiring about my well-being during the last few weeks, I had to re-evaluate my own perceptions of online relationships.   What I’ve discovered is that my social media Third Place is increasingly important to me and the relationships I’ve formed online are just as “real” as some of the relationships I’ve formed the old-fashioned, face to face way.  So this blog post is my note of thanks to those of you who have checked in with me lately.   You are much appreciated.

[Photo Credit:  Rob Dunfey]