Facebook friends vs. real life friends, or, regular people vs. grieving people

(Left, the "real" me, and right, the "virtual" me.)

I didn’t set out to conduct an experiment comparing my Facebook friends to my real life friends, but I did end up creating a fairly controlled situation in two different contexts on Facebook. I even got a lesson or two out of it. I can tell the story as one about isolating yourself online – something that small groups who connect through social media are often accused of – or the source of an insight that helps us recognize the different ways that different people use Facebook at different times in their lives. I choose to interpret the comparison as a way to observe how we use social media tools, and what we take away from them. About finding about value and support during tough times – not as competition between the real world and the virtual one.

Here’s what happened: I have two pages on Facebook, one for my real name, and one for Supa Freshwidow, the owner of this blog. I have close to the same number of friends on both accounts. On the fourth anniversary of my husband’s death, it made sense to mark the loss in some way for both groups. On each page, I posted a status update tailored to the population and forum.

Under my real name, I posted: “Today is the 4th anniversary of Gavin’s passing. Shortie and I will spend some time remembering our loss and his love today. Please share your memory of Gavin by commenting, or send me an email. Thank you!” As with many normal people’s Facebook accounts, my friends here range from besties and ex-besties to colleagues to ex-co-workers to acquaintances, as well as classmates I have barely seen in 20 years. At least half of these friends met Gavin in person, many of them are primarily HIS friends, and they are all people I have met in real life. Dozens were at our wedding and a few hundred have met Short Stack in her 6 years on earth. There is also a page and a Flickr site, clearly referenced on my personal page, devoted to his artwork.

As Supa, the professional widow, I published: “Today is the 4th anniversary of Gavin’s death. I plan to spend some time alone, some with friends, cry, and laugh with our dear daughter. Wine, chocolate, and telephone will all be available should I need them.” Supa’s friends are mostly widowed people and those I have met since his death. I have met a few of them at conferences, and some of them exist in my “real” universe too because I have met them or made substantial contact with them through blogging or other media.

Well, let me tell you.

The sound of crickets from my real name account would have crushed my heart two years ago. My 700 “friends” didn’t exactly deluge me with love. I received:
-- 1 “like”
-- 12 comments (4 from widowed people)
-- 3 wall posts, 2 of which were on his career page and a few visits to the Flickr site
-- 1 e-mail

Supa, on the other hand, logged on and was greeted by a veritable receiving line of hot June hugs. My 700 peeps who have never met me or any of my family in person welcomed me with open and enthusiastic arms:
-- 10 “likes”
-- 67 comments (32 in the first hour, 2 from non-widowed people, and 3 from people with the same sadiversary)
-- 3 wall posts
-- 4 e-mails

At first glance – if I were to simply react – I’d say the real world knows nothing of grief and loss, is confounded by widowed people who are comfortable with themselves, and chooses not to respond even when I suggest a specific easy action for them to take. I’d think, widows are generous and unafraid, kind and loving. Widows give you a big, juicy kiss and a long hug that smells really nice. In the real world, you’re lucky if you get a Chardonnay-scented peck on one cheek. I’d say, no wonder widows only want to hang out with other widows. No wonder the avatars are winning.

But that’s not really a fair interpretation, is it?

Because the fact is that neither of these two identities is “me,” and they work and network in very different ways.

The “real” me uses Facebook as a secondary or tertiary means of socializing with a wide range of people I’ve met. And the overwhelming majority of people who know that “me” on Facebook also use it as a secondary or tertiary way of contacting me. I have no idea how often they check – some, as often as I do. Yes, there are some acquaintances who’ve become friends by status updates, comments, etc. But I’d never feel snubbed if my best friends ignored what I said on Facebook. And for all these people, I’m just another person with many qualities and a variety of experiences in my rich, deep life, from which Facebook “me” shows a tiny, fragmented slice through a peephole.

Supa, on the other hand, lives entirely online. Most of her Facebook friends relate to her solely as a widow, and she is something of a cheerleader and counselor, an ideal friend with the one biggest issue in common with them. Most of these folks know just a few young widowed people in the real world, and rely on the connections with others online for validation and support. People who are not active commenters (my page is public) tell me they get a lot out of just reading what others say. Because most of what we do is simply peer-to-peer sharing of daily experiences, observations, and our feelings and we are all going through something very intense in which we feel generally alone, these friendships have a special role. I’m a leader in this small community of geographically dispersed people, and someone whose page they check fairly often.

Also? I received just one phone call, a day late, from an elderly person who's new to Facebook. Guess which identity is her "friend?" Yes, the real me, the one shown with good jewelry in the above pictures.

So the difference between the responses is not, about real life versus virtual life, and thank God, it doesn’t mean I should disappear into the virtual world. But it does show me how much I am loved there by folks who understand me, and that my real world friendships won’t survive unless I put a bit more time into cultivating them. The contrast is a good illustration of the temptation to hide online and among those who speak our language during this time of widowhood and transition. It makes me think I’m getting too insulated and reminds me to get out of my bubble more often. Real world, I kind of miss you! World of grieving people, I just plain love you.

* * * Please connect! I love comments! * * *


carolyn stephens said...

It is often the case that I feel most at home, these days, among people who have some idea of what it truly means to live through this. It's not so much real life vs. virtual, as it is the simple fact that those not grieving cannot imagine how much damn time and energy and life-force this grieving thing consumes. I'm sure they think I should be pretty nearly better by now (coming up on 11 months widowed, after a 14 month illness and some raggedy periods before that).

I am appalled at the non-response of real life friends when a very simple post was put out there. Sure, not everybody checks fb every day or week, but how hard it is to say, he was a good guy; I bet you miss him. Or something equally painless.

I tend to get the crickets chirping (on fb) when I put out the most overtly painful stuff. Sometimes a few heart symbols, a few "you're so strong"s but generally people just avert their eyes and sidle away whistling. Except for the widows. Who call or message to make sure I'm ok, whatever ok means this particular day.

I don't know you at all, of course, and am brand new to this site, but I think the shared experience of those who "get it" is making us all stronger. Thank you for being there.

Hira Animfefte said...

I've also found that a lot of the people who've given me the most support on FB were people that I know through Dave Barry's Blog ("bloglits"). We are used to communicating with each other online. I've met several of them in RL (and we are all FB friends with our real names and not our bloglit pseudonyms), and consider them friends in RL. I expect the same thing will happen with my online widow friends...or with, at least, a few of them...Enough to make a difference.

Sara said...

Wow! What an interesting comparison! I only have one page, my real identity, and I'm not sure if I would be able to keep up with an alter-ego. That said, I understand why you do that since you have a much bigger online presence than me.

Hm... so glad you shared this. I sometimes wondered if anybody really reads what I put on facebook, but when I post something pretty heartwrenching people come out of the woodwork to voice their love and support. (like when I got the bill for repairing the gaurdrail my husband crashed into and died on, on our anniversary almost 2 years later) This helps me realize that people care, even though they don't always comment.

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Though, not really that surprising I guess.

I had a caringbridge blog before Elias died that was mainly viewed by people who knew us personally (though there were a few who found us otherwise - through the cancer forums website or the like).

I started my 'letterstoelias' blog a few months after he died, that is followed by a mix of those who knew him/me/us personally (who follow both blogs) and those who found it otherwise - most of those widows (though a good number were looking for info on the movie p.s. I Love You)

I, too, have noticed that on 'momentous' occasions, it is those who 'get it' who comment/email/call the most. On my CB site, I have twice outright asked for people to send me comments/emails/letters with their thoughts/stories/memories of Elias so that I could make a scrapbook for the girls. First time I asked - complete crickets. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Second time I asked was a couple of weeks before the 1 yr anniversary of his death, and this time I at least received a few. Maybe 5?

I know a number of people stopped following after Elias died because they found it 'too sad' . . . . but I can see how many people view the site in the days after I post. I know plenty of people still read it. My Dad had also put a request on a FB page that was created when Elias died - nothing there either.

It's hard not to get disappointed. Not to feel like people are forgetting him or don't care. I know the lack of response doesn't mean that though.

Thanks, as always Supa, for your insight! (and sorry for another long comment....)

Mama_Bear_Sarah said...

THANK GOD for the virtual world because i rarely bring up "the situation" in real life anymore ...no one wants to hear it.

Carol Scibelli said...

Hiya...interesting insight...and as always, so well said...just as I wrote on Facebook, though...I'm thinking that your "real/outside" friends are assuming and for the most part rightfully so, that now that it is four years (same for me...I was widowed in April 2006) your feelings are not as raw and the hugs are not as needed.

Anonymous said...

...and I hope you felt all of those virtual hugs.
For me, it's more a case of not being able to tell my RL friends what I really think. I just can't do it. They won't understand and they will try and "fix" everything for me, God love them. Sometimes I just want to scream about how unfair life is without being 'fixed'.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Yes, you're all pointing out what I didn't even state, the most important thing: that when people understand the need, they do respond; widowed people and those with a primarily-online bond are going to be better at both understanding and finding a way to pass the love on.

Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts!



travis ham said...

Thanks for the honestly and great insights. I'm not a widower myself but came across your post, ironically, via an acquaintance on FB who is a widow. As someone whose life is largely going well at the moment, I really appreciate your post as a great reminder to the hurt that so many people are feeling, and sometimes rather intensely feeling just beneath the surface, all around us on a daily basis. There is a need for us all to open our eyes, hearts, and arms a bit wider to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. As a natural introvert I need to work on this daily. Thank you again.

Kim said...

Isn't it amazing how we find out who we can count on?

Becky Andrews said...

Very interesting ... thanks for sharing. I am so sorry for your loss.

Hira Animfefte said...

I've been trying a similar experiment lately with my own alter ego...with largely the same results.

Other widow/ers get it.

And when you're Supa--and when I'm Hira--we get to let our hair down. So to speak.


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