Does this sound familiar to you?

We’ve known each other for years. Hs’s an avid motorbike rider and also loves to garden. He loves to travel, preferring places off the beaten track. I’ve watched him as he moved to another country, get a job, get married and have children. I’ve seen his two daughters grow up, witnessed their parties and looked at their vacation pictures. I know his friends, know the name of his wife, and his dog. I know where he works and his opinion on key issues. On any day of the week, I can tell you where he is and who he’s with. I even know what he’s having for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fact is, I know most everything about him.

But we’ve never met. He is @Detlef, my social media friend.

@Detlef and I share something in common. We’re both netizens – a term now mostly used to describe people who are avid users of the internet. Our online friendship started by chance some 10 years ago, when @Detlef (not his real handle) first commented on a photo I had uploaded on my new Flickr account. Like any good netizen, I visited his photostream in return and favorited/commented on a couple of his photos that I found interesting. So began a steady stream of interaction that – through the years – spread through other social media channels. When I opened a Twitter account, @Detlef was the first of my followers and when @Detlef moved over to Facebook, I also became one of his first “friends”. This pattern of follow-for-follow behaviour continued over  to Tumblr, Foursquare, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google +, YouTube, Vimeo and other social communities.

What made it even easier is the common algorithm used by most social media channels to “invite” existing contacts whenever you join. This ensures that friends follow you from one channel to the next one and the next one and the next one until your online lives are as intertwined as a plate of spaghetti.

So as more of our online activities intertwine, it is no wonder then that @Detlef and I almost feel like —  as expressed in today’s lingo — we’re best friends forever or BFFs!. I say almost because this relationship is not really real. We know as much as there is to know about the respective lives that we willingly share online. Yet is is ultimately a shallow sharing, devoid of emotional connection. It’s like watching a movie from a distance in thousand-pixel quality. The connection itself is momentary — punctuated by likes, comments and shares –which ends the moment we go offline.

Of course, I’m not discounting the possibility of online friendships blossoming into real-world ones. There are stories a-plenty of that happening, and anecdotes abound about love and friendship found (and lost) on social media. But lucky for me and @Detlef, our online presence is not the totality of our entire lives. As far as I’m are concerned, our online friendship is fine just the way it is at the moment.

The other side of the coin

It can also work the other way around. Real friendships can also turn into online friendships for various reasons. An increasingly mobile lifestyle equates to people moving around more often and further distances. A friend or family member can suddenly relocate to another country or get a job in a different state. Entire families might transfer residence, moving to where the standard and quality of life is better and where there are brighter prospects for growth, prosperity and happiness.

Which leads me to the raison d’etre of this article’s title.

Two years ago, a work colleague moved to another job, in the process totally changing career direction. Though way much younger than me, we had become friends through the years, mainly because of our shared interest in blogging and social media trends. Moving to another country and frequent out-of-town assignment meant that we steadily lost personal contact. Through status updates, picture postings, comments, we nevertheless managed to stay abreast of  what each of us was up to. But this, too, slowly dwindled in the coming months.

Then about a year later, a random comment thread in Facebook somehow concluded in a mutual decision to “let’s meet again and catch up”. So we did and spent a weekend lunch reminiscing about the “good old days” and the usual “by-the-way-what-happened-to-you-know-who” type of conversation. Two hours later, it was time to go.

Probably realizing how our lives have taken such diverse paths, there was no mention of a next meeting as we prepared to part ways. But the question must have been in my eyes because just before leaving she said:

“Hey, @beecue. I’ll follow you in every ‘gram!”

And indeed we are now connected in all the major social media channels, the latest being Snapchat.

Thus begins another social media relationship…

About the Picture

The picture above is a screenshot from the Instagram account of Murad Osmann, who together with his girlfriend, Nataly Zakharova (@yourleo),  have become Instagram celebrities for their  photograph series that shows her pulling him into various famous landmarks all over the world. With over 2.4 million followers, they have been featured in several internet trade magazines and dailies.