Online Contacts and Real Friends

This is quite the ramble. I wrote it more for myself than anyone else. It doesn’t touch on game content, or freelancing (really), and everyone who follows me for those kinds of things should feel free to skip it.

If someone wants to build a true emotional connection to me, I make it difficult. Doubly so online.

That’s okay. I have lots of friends. None of this is a complaint. Really, it’s just an examination of my mind and experiences, brought on in part by how much more of my socialization has been online for the past 9+ months. And that, in turn, has be thinking about the nature of online “friendship.”

Yes, a surprising number of my “Facebook friends” are actually my real friends. Some I have known for more than 35 years. Others I met online, but correspond with weekly or more.

But we all know that’s not the majority.

The majority of the Facebook users I have friend-demarcated are “People who have mutually decided a weak online connection might prove entertaining or beneficial.” Or “Mutubenes” for short.
Some of THOSE people have a business plan that includes being friendly, so they look and sound more like a friend to those who are their Mutubenes.

Sadly, some people who are Mutubenes can’t tell the difference between that causal connection and true friendship. Normally in such a causal online relationship, the more popular and/or beautiful person is aware of the true nature of the online connection, while one or more less-popular cybercommoners gets too sucked into the illusion of friendship to differentiate it from reality.

This isn’t a binary friend/notfriend status, of course. There are casual friends, work friends, friendly acquaintances, Mutubenies you like slightly more than others, Mutubenies you’d happily share a drink with which might allow you to become casual friends, pure business partners, people you dislike but tolerate… a long line of degrees and types of relationships that can grow, wilt, morph, and change over time, with the right context and circumstance.

Many Beaupops are attractive women. That’s not shocking–they have careers to build along with everyone else, and are taking a thing that often causes them to be dismissed to mistreated, and trying to turn it into an advantage. Whatever each Beaupop is comfortable with is perfectly appropriate, be that just knowing that looking professional and stylish can’t hurt get attention all the way to actually being a sex worker–these approaches are in no way comparable to each other, but they often share the same online space. Sadly, too often when male cybercommoners realize they aren’t truefriends with attractive Beaupop women the cybercommoner becomes aggressive and abusive.

I think about these things fairly often, for a number of reasons. First, I work in this online social space. I want to be aware and realistic of what’s actually going on in such connections.

But, second, I have social anxiety, in part tied to my civilian PTSD. It manifests in many ways, one of which is that when I don’t understand what is expected of me in a social interaction, I can panic. Sometimes full-on panic attacks that can be hard to distinguish from heart attacks. Other times, just a rising of bile in my throat and sense of impending doom. I’ve struggled with that in therapy, for years.

At least some of that seems to tie back to one of the worst beatings I ever took in my life. It’s a story I have told before, but not often. I was at camp as a young teen. The daughter of one of the camp masters invited me to take a walk in the woods. She was older than me, though not adult. I was confused as to why—we hadn’t talked at all, I didn’t really know her, and I had never had a girl ask me to walk with them before. Indeed, positive attention of any kind from girls was foreign to me. But she seemed friendly and genuine, so I agreed.
But I was confused, and unsure of the social expectations of such a walk.

She walked me out to a clearing, where a large number of boys had dug a pit. They beat me up, threw me into the pit, and sat and stood on me. They laughed. I remember smelling the dirt, tasting it, and being totally unable to get up. She laughed with them. I remember crying, and yelling, and that only making the laughter louder.

I don’t remember how that ended. I do remember being 100% sure that there was no point telling anyone. That doing so would just make things worse. So I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone, for years.
But that sense of dread is still tied to not knowing what is expected of me in a social setting, either in physical meetings or virtual ones.

I’ve worked on that a lot over the years. I have had to. But it also means that if I am not sure what a relationship is? If I can’t be certain if someone is my friend, or just a popular or talented or beautiful person who finds an online connection to me to be more likely to be useful than annoying?

I assume it’s an entirely transactional connection. Unless I am flat told by someone that they consider me their friend, or wants a closer connection, I assume they do not. I have to. To survive. Even people I have known for years are generally kept in that circle of polite acquaintance until there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I assume praise is based on the interests of the praiser, interaction based on the value of the interaction, expressions of liking or wanting to spend time with me are weighed by the value the person expressing such interest believes they can get from it.

Which doesn’t mean that is how you should do it. Nor does it mean I think these people are disingenuous. Being friendly is not a promise of anything but polite interaction. People who want to spend time with me to benefit themselves are acting in a perfectly rational and reasonable manner. Even when genuinely like and want to be with or help someone, I assume that feeling is not reciprocated to an emotional degree, and that’s fine. Being nice to someone is not a currency that buys me any obligation from them, nor should it be.
The upside of this is that I can continue to interact with people online without panicking. If there’s a downside, it’s mostly in potentially missed connections when people would like to form real friendship or emotional bonds to me, and I don’t give them the signals they would take as a go-ahead to try increasing that bond.

Basically, if someone is not already my friend I treat their online interactions the same way I treat those of a waitress as a favored restaurant at which I am a regular. They may know my name, be friendly, say they are happy to see me. And that can all be true, within the context of my coming to their place of work and having a professional interaction with them. Especially in the US, the fact that my being happy impacts their job security and payment (especially in the case of tips) means that friendliness is contextualized differently than if they acted the same way after asking me to go out to lunch somewhere else. I certainly HAVE made friends with the staff at places I was a regular, but it involved a lot of evidence that the relationship was not purely professional, including things like being invited to the restaurant when it was closed, and having staff choose to spend time with me and play games and go drinking when they were off-the-clock.

I would much rather err on the side of polite professionalism, than even overstep socially appropriate bounds and make someone else uncomfortable. Even at the cost of coming off as distant now and then.
I enjoy having Mutubenies. I just think of them as different from what I think of as “friends.”

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About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on December 11, 2020, in Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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