As a writer, working from home, my only coworker is my faithful dog Molly who, while definitely interested in hanging out during my lunch break, isn't very talkative around the water cooler and has absolutely no opinion on the series finale of LOST.
So when I need a break, I turn to the Internet, socializing with friends on Facebook or Twitter or message boards. Some of these people I've never met in real life--and yet I consider them really good friends.
Having these so-called "virtual" online friends is becoming more and more common. One recent survey, from Mom Central Consulting, found sixty percent of moms say they've made a new online friend in the last year. Thirty percent of those turned that online friendship into a lasting offline one.
It's not surprising to social media expert Sarah Evans of Sevans Strategies PR and Media Consulting. "You can search and find people with common interests easier," she says. "And with different networks growing every day - both text based and audio based and video based - you can just find people easier."
Novelists April Henry and Debbie Garfinkle met after discovering each other's blogs. They started commenting, then emailing, and are now fast friends, even though they live a thousand miles away from one another and have never met in person. Debby says they tell each other everything--even things they might feel hesitant to share with a real life friend.
"She's really good when I'm feeling down. She'll cheer me up and give me sympathy," says Debby. "And also if something good happens, she's one of the first people I want to tell to celebrate together."
But is there a downside to virtual friends? Jennine Estes, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says while online friendships can be great to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, they also can be limiting and shouldn't replace real life friendships. "You don't get that physical bond," she says,"a hug, a shaking of hands. You don't get to go outside and enjoy a latte or eat lunch with someone or go on a bike ride."
And because of this, you may not know your virtual friend as well as you think you do. After all, people can become anyone they want online. "There may be something you're not seeing," Estes warns. "You don't really know who this person is, you don't know how they are in real life. You know how they are behind a computer screen."
In the end, perhaps the Girl Scout song says it best. "Make new friends, but keep the old." Enjoy your virtual relationships, but work to remain connected to your real life friends as well. And maybe even take things a step further--find some virtual friends who live near you and make an effort to meet up with them for lattes or lunch. Turn off the computer, leave the dog to fend for herself, and transform those virtual friends into real life ones that will last forever.
Do you have virtual friends? How do they stack up to your 'real life' friends -- do you tell them information more easily through the anonymity of cyberspace?