Are our online friends ‘real’ friends?

Cassie Widders
4 min readOct 12, 2022

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Someone asked me the other day whether or not I considered my “online friends” to be real friends. Initially, I was taken aback by the question. Of course! I said, thinking what a strange thing to ask. But it got me thinking, are they?

I have built a world that’s almost entirely online since I started my business over three and a half years ago. I have met people from all walks of life, from almost every continent on Earth. With some of them, we chat daily, we send voice notes, we devotedly watch each other’s Stories to keep abreast of our lives. Some of them are probably you, reading this article right now. Isn’t this what “real friendship” is?

Or have I clung to these interactions as my friendships because they’re easier?

We live in a world where we’re time-poor, as well as in the age of self-care. ‘No, I can’t come, I’m so busy’, or ‘I’m filling up my cup with some me-time’. So a double tap here, a voice-note there, the easy excuse of ‘I wasn’t on my phone’, it’s just easier right?

But does easier mean less real?

I’ve recently moved to a new country, and so the notion of making friends as a woman in her 30s is very much at the top of my mind. While I’ve been figuring it all out and awkwardly putting myself out there, I’ve been noticing the difference when I come back online and chat with my ‘online friends’.

It’s definitely easier, but what I’ve noticed more than anything is that the people I speak to online, the people I call friends, they are almost entirely my friends out of choice. Not location. Not sharing an office. Not having landed at the same university over a decade ago. And so with that, it begs the question, as you grow up and your circle of friends inevitably gets smaller, are your ‘in-real-life friends’ your real friends? Or are they simply a product of a shared history, location, or job?

Now that we live in a digital world, do we have the opportunity to truly choose the people we call friends? To widen the net and choose people out of a shared interest, a journey we’re both on, or the inspiration you get from them?

There is a lot to be said about meeting people in person. The connection of having seen someone’s mannerisms, of being so physically close, even seeing something as silly as their height or how they hold themselves, it really does bring the person to life in a rich and colourful way that Zoom can never really replicate.

But if you do meet your online friends IRL, does that not count?

These questions I’ve found myself asking during this period of my life have helped me to feel less alone, and less silly for seeking these interactions out. Even though we live in a digital world there is still a lot of stigma out there about online friendships, as well as negativity.

By truly asking what I was getting out of these online interactions, I’ve seen how much value they add to my life.

I guess the worry so many people have is that they would replace IRL interactions and experiences.

But think back to that time when you’ve had a group of girlfriends round the house for some wine, a group so random that your friendship is built on a chance encounter at uni years ago. How did that evening make you feel? Chances are you’re smiling, you’re remembering something funny that made you laugh out loud, or the great food and conversation you shared.

These experiences will never be replaced.

They may not have been entirely your choosing, unlike the friendships you have built online, and many of you may not have much in common, unlike the friends you have online, but you have shared experiences, memories, random evenings that can’t be logically explained as to why they felt good.

So what I’ve come to realise is that yes, my online friends are my real friends, just as much as my IRL friends are. And that the sooner we accept that online friendships are not here to replace our IRL friendships, the sooner we can start to embrace the connections we can now make thanks to the internet.

We can have both, those of our choosing and those of chance.

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Cassie Widders

Social Media Strategist, Podcast Host, Speaker & Digital Wellbeing Advocate