I have many friends through social media. I enjoy looking at their photos and engaging with them on their posts. I enjoy sharing common interests with them, especially those interests none of my IRL (in real life) friends share. Some I've met in person, other's I'll likely never meet. Of some of these friends, I've thought, "I wish I lived closer to her, I bet we'd make the best of friends."
There are many benefits to the relationships we have online. In the context of social media, it's easy to find like-minded people who share the same beliefs, perspectives, and experiences as we do. For those who often feel isolated and different from others in their community, the connections they make online is like a respite from their everyday. Sometimes it's easier to share with online friends the heartaches and trials we are going through than it is with our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family. We often receive immediate encouragement and feedback to something we post. We can reach out anytime, anywhere and someone will likely respond. Yet as beneficial as online friendships are, these friendships can't fill all our needs for community. There are some needs only a face to face, IRL friend can meet.
1. An online friend can't be physically present for us.
An online friend can't be present for us in our suffering. They might be able to send a heart-felt message or post encouraging words for us. They might pray for us. But they can't be there with us in the muck and mire of hardship, suffering, and sorrow. They can't sit beside us in the dust and ashes of our grief. They can't walk with us in the days and weeks following a heartbreak or tragedy. They can't give us a hug.
Physical presence is important in friendship. The Apostle Paul corresponded with a number of churches in his ministry and while he was able to exhort and encourage them through written words in his letters, he also desired to see them in person. "For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine" (Romans 1:11-12). To have a friend we can count on to be with us face to face, is a real gift and one we can't take for granted. The level of encouragement we receive in person is richer and far deeper than a text, email, message, or post can ever be.
2. An online friend can't know us the way IRL friendships can.
As much as we might share with others on social media, as much as we might enjoy our interactions with those friends, and as much as we might have in common, those friends can never know us the way IRL friendships know us. Online friends don't see the real us in our living rooms or at the kitchen table. They don't know our family and see the interactions we have with our spouse or children or other family members. They can't walk into our home and sense that something is wrong because the bills are piled high on the counter or the fridge is empty or the laundry hasn't been folded in a week. Real life friendships read the subtle physical cues such as body language, eye contact, and tone of voice. They can see the sadness in our eyes and hear the fatigue in our voice. They can feel conflict in the air between us and our spouse or the tension with our children. They know when we need to laugh or cry, when we need advice or exhortation, when we need to have fun or just sit quietly with a cup of tea.
There is so much more to knowing someone than just knowing facts about them. Truly knowing someone involves years of walking beside them in the ups and downs of life. It's having a shared history and viewing their present through that history. It's seeing God's work in their lives through trials and joys and being able to remind them of how far he's brought them. While an online friend can know a lot about us, IRL friends know us at a deeper level.
3. An online friend cannot serve us.
When we are sick, an online friend can't show up at our door with soup. When we need someone to watch our kids so we can run to the store or go to an appointment, an online friend cannot help us. When our car breaks down, we can't call an online friend to come to our aid. IRL friendships are able to serve us. They can meet our physical needs. They can drop everything and show up when we need them most. This is where we see Acts 2 lived out in our lives--when the early church shared what they had with one another. It's often in serving one another where deep bonds are formed. Acts of service become part of our shared history and one we can't forget. It's where we learn who we can really count on in times of trouble.
God provides us friendships in many contexts. We all have friends who live far away. Most of us have virtual friends. But we also need IRL friends. We need face to face friendships, people who know us, the real us. Keep your online friendships and enjoy them. But don't forsake or underestimate the importance of IRL friendships.