Sunday, August 22, 2010

Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends: What Does It Mean to "Friend" Someone In an On-Line Community?

     "Good friends. Kind sirs." My college debate coach, Dr. Bob Derryberry, greeted his progeny with these words at the beginning of class and casual encounters. When I learned of Dr. D's death earlier this summer, I reminisced about his many colloquial expressions, especially the idea of being good and kind and a friend.

     On the English Companion Ning, I've been helping review member applications and posting welcoming comments to new members' walls. Today I received a "friend request" from a new ECN member, along with the comment, "I'm not really sure what it means to friend someone here." Hum, I thought, "What does it mean to be an on-line friend, especially to those with whom I've never had a face-to-face conversation?"
      In the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Aristotle's treatise on friendship, the philosopher tells us friendship "is desirable in all circumstances" (pt. 11). Our on-line friendships, if with virtuous men and women, will make us better teachers, in the case of EC friends. For through our EC friendships and activities our goal is  "improving each other; for from each other [friends] take the mould of the characteristics they approve," says Aristotle (pt. 9). This is true on-line, too. For example anger seeps through posts, spawning angry comments; conversely, kindness has the same impact.  As my children were growing up, I often implored them to choose friends who bring out the best in them. They didn't always do this, unfortunately. I think about this standard in terms of on-line friendships as well.

     Aristotle also describes the pleasure we experience when we see our friends. Indeed, sometimes I choose to enter a conversation--whether on EC, twitter, or Facebook-- based on the other participants while avoiding some conversations for the same reason. Good friends, says Aristotle, feel pain when their friends experience pain and experience joy as a byproduct of their friends' joy. I know this reality on-line, too. Earlier this summer I received several encouraging emails and friend requests from kindly virtual colleagues who sensed I needed "a friend." Since that time, I've enjoyed a growing collegiality with several folks. Really, is a virtual friend any different than an old-fashioned pen pal?

     Choosing whom to friend on-line, I think, requires the same care as choosing our face-to-face friends. Among the over 20,000 EC Ningers, all are my colleagues, some are and will become my friends, others my good friends, and a select few such good friends that the cyber walls fall away as our friendships evolve. Good friends. Kind Sirs, I look forward to seeing you on the Ning, and may we all heed Dr. Derryberry's admonition to "act seemingly."


  1. Glenda, your blogs always give me something to think about and incorporate into my life. Friendship is something I have been pondering lately. Not only the online/face to face aspect, but other things such as age differences, gender differences, etc. It's interesting to see that a good friend can defy any of those barriers.

  2. Well said, Glenda. I, too, have pondered the nature of online friendship, but my thoughts had not crystalized so concisely. Thank you for giving me something upon which to further reflect.

  3. Wow. That is a lot to think about. Considering I use Twitter to make new friends, keep in touch with people I meet, and in one case, to catch up with a friend from summer camp when I was 12, I'm not sure how I think of what it means to "friend" someone. I follow those who I think add something to my life--authentic friendship (as we would recognize in the "real world"), a sense of connection, great ideas, food for thought, and sometimes, a little levity. The last one, I think, can't be overvalued. Some days, it's the people who make me laugh that most make me feel connected.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  4. I've been thinking about this blogpost since you posted it. At this point, I think that friendship takes many forms even when friends are in real time and space. So online 'friendships' can similarly take many forms. True, deep, satisfying friendship is a meeting of the minds and hearts or souls, not necessarily a meeting in the flesh. I think of all of the authors and artists who developed deep and long-lasting friendships through letters, even through their art. Online is what you make it, just as letters or postcards or other forms of long distance communications. Well, that's what I'm thinking right now, in any case.