By any conventional definition, this person is a stranger to you.
You’ve never met him or her face to face. You may not know what they look like, you probably have not heard their voice before, and you certainly don’t have an inkling of how they behave in real life.
Is it still possible for you to form a real friendship with this person?
In this digital era, the answer is well, yes.
Social media, chat rooms and internet forums are changing the way friendships are formed, and evolving how we view friendships.
Friends are those you connect with at school, through social activities, or work. Now, they can also be someone you met online – which was the experience of Shin, a 21-year-old waiting to enter university.
Shin tells The Pride that she talks to one of her closest friends every day, but here’s the catch – they’ve never met face-to-face. That’s because they befriended each other through the social media platform Instagram about three years ago, when Shin was running a TV show fan account.
“She was also a fan of that show and she started following the account. We started chatting with each other and found that we clicked immediately as we had a lot in common,” Shin says.
“From there, we started following each other on our personal Instagram accounts. Even after the TV show fan account was deactivated, we still kept in touch with each other and still updated each other about our lives.”
As someone who, by her own admission, doesn’t have many friends, the opportunity to expand her social circle in this unconventional way was a “bonus” for Shin. And she is far from being the only person who thinks that way.
Lee Yuan Sheng, 39, uses popular discussion site Reddit frequently and told The Pride that he has made several friends there. He was first attracted to the platform in 2012 because it had “higher quality of discourse and interesting content that was centred around interests instead of people”. Gradually, he found others who shared similar values and tastes as he did, and connected with them.
And those friendships do not just exist just over the internet – over time, he has actually met them.
“We found each other interesting enough to want to hang out,” explains Lee, who adds that when he eventually met the friends he had known on Reddit face-to-face for the first time, there wasn’t any awkwardness as they’d had “established a decent dynamic beforehand”, through frequent chats with each other.
Still, there are some who believe that if a friendship isn’t established in the physical world, it is not valid or “real”.
Perry Teo, 29, has been playing games online for the past 14 years and has befriended at least five fellow gamers. He says that whenever he shares about his experiences of befriending someone from online gaming, he tends to get a look of surprise. Some even ask if these can be considered real friendships if he hasn’t met them in person.
The suggestion is ludicrous to Teo. While he doesn’t hang out with his gaming friends in person, they do spend time together virtually – when they are playing games like Maplestory, Dota 2 and Mobile Legends together online, he says. And their friendships don’t just revolve around the games.
“We do hold quality conversations with each other. We chat about world affairs and our lives, not just about the games we are playing,” said the brand activation senior executive. He said he started making friends through games because he wanted to expand his social circle.
“I feel that the most important thing for a friendship is not where it exists, but the mutual respect that friends show each other and the meaningful conversations we can hold. It is not necessary to hang out physically with each other, especially when we all have our own busy schedules with work and studies.”
Lee points out that befriending someone online is simply like having a digital penpal.
“In times past, you had stories of people who made friends (as penpals) despite the distance,” he explains. “I suppose what people are not yet accustomed to is the idea that online relationships have become more common and for some, it actually forms the majority of their interactions.
“After all, any friendship is built through communication and doing so online is no different.”
June, another Redditor in her late 30s, believes that another advantage to making friends online is that it is “not as daunting” as doing so face-to-face. For one, there isn’t a need to worry about the other party judging her appearance or behaviour. She also finds it much easier to express herself through text as compared to verbally, so making friends online comes naturally to her.
Apart from that, another added advantage is the “cloak of anonymity” which makes it easier to confide in online friends, as they will not need to face “judgmental looks” from someone in real life, she adds.
“Some might also not want to worry their loved ones, so confiding in someone online can prove to be a good avenue,” June shares.
Of course, the cloak of anonymity has its disadvantages, too, as it could be easy for a person to mask their true intentions. And unfortunately for Shin, she learnt this the hard way.
Around the same time she got to know her close friend, she also befriended a guy through the TV show fan account on Instagram. They had hit it off from the start, and as he was living in Singapore, they met and gradually became “best friends”.
Eventually they began dating, but it was a horrible experience as the guy turned out to be a sexual predator. Shin admits: “I realised my mistake. I didn’t judge his character properly because I knew him by his persona online and hadn’t got to know him in reality.”
Ultimately, Lee believes that while a friendship can start online, it won’t progress if – like in real life – the two parties don’t make it a point to keep in touch, much like the classic computer life simulation game, The Sims.
“(The Sims) is a reasonably good distillation of relationships – if you don’t find a way to keep in touch and interact, your relationship score goes down. It’s the same way for any friendship,” he says.
“A good relationship formed online could be better than a face-to-face relationship with someone who is merely an acquaintance.”