The online world can be a wonderful place to meet people….but many find it a frustrating place where people brag about hundreds of “friends” they’ve never met. Connectivity online may not mean connections online.
Forming true connections
First, find people who share your interests on an online platform. This can be cooking, knitting, owning a Bichon Frise dog, your city, your neighborhood or where you grew up, books, history, the outdoors, a sports team, dining out or a support group (for caregivers, health problems etc.). You name it, there’s a group for it.
On Facebook click “groups” on the left, then type in a keyword. Most groups are public (anyone can join and read posts), but some are private (you need to be approved before reading or posting, by answering some questions). Meetup offers interest groups who meet in real life (at least, before COVID; some resumed on Zoom or with social distancing), and you can pick the distance from your location (two-100 miles, or anywhere). For 50+ folks only, Stitch offers interest groups who meet virtually as well as discussion forums.
One woman’s experience
Jessica Levant (at left), an artist who is 60+, favors Meetup. First, she joined a local group of walkers in San Francisco. “I made a few real connections, and some ties remain friends after meeting almost 20 years ago,” she says. Then, she joined a social group in her age range who wanted to ‘do stuff’ together. “After many interesting performances, newly-discovered eateries and day trips, some people became familiar, and one of my closest friends now came from that group years ago.” Levant adds. She later joined Meetups for artists, jazz, and photography lovers.
“The artists’ group, where we present and discuss our own art and get valuable (or arguable!) feedback, is a tight group and the only Meetup I continued during lockdown. We used to meet in a gallery. But it turns out we can function quite nicely without the wine and cheese!”
A Facebook group for travel, food and wine writers nationwide was how Penny Sadler, 61, a makeup artist in Dallas, met a Los Angeles woman she now visits at least one a year.
Don’t rush it!
But making a real friend takes time. In real life, it takes an average of 50 hours of time together to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend, about 80-100 hours to transition to a real friend, then about 200 hours to deepen to a close friend, found a study by Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, who studies social media and relationships. So the best way to make friends online is to mimic the optimal conditions in real life, like routineness, motivation and reciprocity (feeling you are heard and understood when you reveal personal things), as much as possible. In the real world, regular events at, say, 6 PM on Tuesday guarantee the same people interested in the same thing will interact on a regular basis, and such proximity and frequency often blossom into friendship.
Persistence, consistency is key
Don’t blame technology if you drop into groups sporadically, and just “lurk” when you do. “You have to do the work, and participate, not just be passive. People who don’t use the capacity of technology won’t benefit,” says Hall, author of Relating Through Technology (Cambridge University Press, 2020), a book that analyzes the good and bad things in the online world. As Woody Allen once said, 90 percent of life is showing up. Apply the advice on older adults making friends in Marla Paul’s book to online platforms. Remember, the best friend you’ve ever had you may not have met yet!
Try these tips
- Reflect first: don’t just rush online. Consider your interests, and look for communities with similar interests. Offer information that may help others.
- Think narrow and local. This increases the chances to meet group members in real life, either planned or by pure chance. For example, Hall belongs to a Facebook group dedicated to clouds in Northeast Kansas, who share photos of vivid sunrises and sunsets. If a simpatico pal lives in Kyrgyzstan, you may not see them for a long, long time.
- Participate: post messages and reply regularly. Don’t just read. In fact, that can worsen your mood, a study of passive Facebook usage found.
- Broaden your definition of a friend. What you wanted in friends years ago may not be what you want now.
- Don’t sound too needy. Don’t say you’re lonesome, even if you are. It’s a turn-off. “Research shows it’s quite common for lonely people to behave in ways that exacerbate their isolation,” says Hall.
What’s your experience been with online socializing? Do you have any other tips? Let us know in the comments!