This afternoon, I pulled into a parking space for a quick lunch before heading to the craft store. It was a beautiful autumn day…blue sky, white puffy clouds, a cool breeze sifting through the blushing leaves. I had just rolled the windows down and crunched into my panini and suddenly a voice jolted the peaceful moment. There at my passenger side window a young woman ducked her head in. I raised my eyebrows and snatched a napkin.

She held her decoupaged box like a serving tray and told me she was spending this year being friendly, trying to bring love to people, and that if she could bring love to a random person like me, she’d be better prepared to love her own family when the time would come. Hmm. Hypothetically, it was a good idea, so why did I find myself feeling so uncomfortable, so NOT loved? Her voice was sing-songy, sales-pitchy. She looked me in the eye and it felt too bold. My baby cried in the back and I wondered if she sensed something. I played out paranoid scenarios in my head. What was in the box? What were the young woman’s real intentions in cornering me in my parked car?

Don’t a lot of us feel a hint of that online, maybe not physical danger but some sense of emotional uncertainty nonetheless? Who is this person and what do they want from me? Is our friendship really mutual, or do they just want my follow? Is there such a thing as true friendship in the digital arena anyway?

My intuition works best when I’m face to face. So, on the Internet I really just have my skepticism. At times on Twitter, I’ve wondered if the people promoting one another are truly heartfelt friends or if they’re just business partners doing each other favors, or if some reply or retweet in an effort to get attention from influential people. In all of this, I wonder how loosely they’re using the word “friend.”

Social media guru Jay Baer said of his own experience, “I consider these people (and many, many others) to be friends, and I’m thankful that social media has brought them into my life. But in comparison to my pre-social media friends (many of whom I’ve known for 30+ years), I know almost nothing about them. Is that what we want – spending considerable time building large networks of shallow connections, potentially at the expense of deepening a few cherished friendships upon which we can truly rely?”

Maybe we need a new word to match this new category of person: this virtual/potential friend, someone we are fond of from what we know of them online but with whom we don’t have the layers of deep relationship.

It’s interesting to watch how people sort out the complexities of friendship between real and online circles. One pastor I know decided that he wouldn’t add anyone as a friend on Facebook unless they’d been to his house in real life. Some people put out a “clean-up” post and if you don’t comment, you’re cut from the friend list. When I see someone in the store and they don’t stop to talk, I wonder why they friended me in the first place. Sadly, online friendship can sometimes look more like a charade.

Emerson got my attention when he wrote: “I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances. I much prefer the company of ploughboys and tin-peddlers to the silken and perfumed amity which celebrates its days of encounter by a frivolous display, by rides in a curricle and dinners at the best taverns.” He preferred the down-to-earth over pretense, the hard work of real friendship over the showiness of false intimacy.

When the girl at my car door finally got to her sales pitch, I had to be authentic and straightforward…even if I was the only one between the two of us to do so. She lifted the lid of the box, “Would you like to buy a world peace sun catcher?”

The dove and the olive branch made my resistance seem so silly. “I’m sorry,” I shifted my lips to the side in a semi-frown.

“How about a metallic painting?” she pressed. I explained my constant battle with de-cluttering my house, that I don’t need to buy another trinket. “Could you spare a dollar then?” This really wasn’t about showing love to me. The requests continued.

“I’m not the kind to support blindly. I’d have to know more about what my money would be used for,” I told her. She handed me a bookmark. Sunlight shone on a name I recognized, that of a false prophet who had claimed to be messiah.

“Ohhhhh,” I said. It was all making sense now. “To be honest, I only support organizations that line up with my beliefs,” I paused, “I test everything with Scripture. I can’t donate, but I wouldn’t mind talking more about our world views.”  I asked her if she had an email so we could continue the conversation. She was to be offline for the year. A phone number? She wouldn’t give it out. Her happy speech fizzled. “Well, I guess we’re at a stand still, then,” I said. The sun catcher clinked as she shut the lid to the box, and off she went with her cell phone to her ear, calling for her ride.

Whether in person or in pixels, I want to be real. I don’t want to present myself as an altruistic soul only to see what I can get out of people. I want to be real and I want us all to be real, even if that means tightening our circles to spend more time at the center. I want to say like the apostle Paul that “we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others….”

To me, this looks like working through ideas together in speech and in written comments, not just flattering with a little attention so that we’ll get attention in return. It involves expressing in exquisite detail what we know to be special about a particular person instead of cloaking them in generalities. It means sitting with the same people for months and years on end, either on their blogs or in their living rooms, while not neglecting to leave a seat open for someone new to join the circle. It may not be world-peace, but it sounds like a worthy investment to me.

lessdigitalHere’s a little Internet break for you. Right now, before you do anything else online….
Think about those pre-social media friends, the ones you’ve known for more than a decade. Pick one true friend and mail him/her a handwritten letter.


{I’m linking up with Nester for her annual 31 Days blog get together. Don’t want to miss this series? Be sure to subscribe by entering your email in the box on the homepage sidebar. Find all posts in the series here.}