This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Like Switch" by Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to make friends? Can you meet new friends online?

In Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins’s book The Like Switch, they highlight the advantages and disadvantages of meeting new friends online. On one hand, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people, but you could also be easily catfished.

Let’s look at what you need to keep in mind when you form relationships online.

Friendship in the Digital Age

In today’s world, many relationships are formed online. Relationships in virtual spaces have their own set of unique rules and challenges. With that in mind, we’ll discuss some basic facts about online friendships and the authors’ guidelines for how to meet new friends online safely. 

Unique Considerations of Meeting New Friends Online

The authors identify three main factors that are unique to online relationships:

Consideration #1: It’s Easy to Find People With Common Interests

According to Schafer and Karlins, it’s easy to make friends online because it’s easy to find common interests. There are thousands of strangers online who watch the same shows as you, play the same sports as you, have the same hobbies as you, and so on, and they’re all right at your fingertips. 

(Shortform note: You can use the internet to orchestrate in-person connections with people who share your interests. For example, the website Meetup allows you to find groups and events in your area centered around almost any topic, such as photography, gaming, yoga, hiking, reading, and writing. You’ll get the unique online benefit of finding like-minded people easily while also getting the benefits of real-world interaction.)

Consideration #2: It’s Easy to Enter and Leave Intense Connections

The authors note that online relationships often intensify quickly because the barrier of the screen makes people feel more comfortable sharing traits they’d normally hide. The relative anonymity means there’s less risk of embarrassment sharing things online than there is in person, and it’s easier to exit uncomfortable situations. If the other person says something that makes you feel uneasy, rejected, or offended, all you have to do is exit the webpage or the app to escape the situation: You don’t have to face backlash from the other person in real-time.

Consideration #3: You Can’t Use Nonverbal Cues to Understand People’s Intentions

Online relationships also come with unique dangers. The authors claim that without access to the nonverbal cues that let our brains know whether someone is a potential friend or enemy, it’s difficult to judge someone’s intentions. Additionally, though the internet offers more anonymity than in-person interactions, there’s always a chance that the things you post and write online may be accessible forever. This becomes a problem if you post information or photos that put you in a compromising position. 

(Shortform note: The lack of nonverbal and emotional cues in online interactions has unique implications surrounding cyberbullying. Since we rely on nonverbal cues to interpret other people’s responses to our actions, bullies may underestimate the severity of the hurt they cause to their victims online. Likewise, cyberbullying prolongs the suffering of the victims because of its large audience and the permanence of online content. Reconsider before you post something meant to insult or make fun of someone, no matter how lighthearted your intentions—you never know how much pain you’re causing.)

How to Safely Navigate Online Relationships

The authors list several ways you can meet new friends online safely. First, until you have strong evidence that you’re talking to the person you think you are, assume that they’re fabricating at least some details about themselves. Many people lie about specific details like their age, weight, or occupation online, but some assume entirely false identities. You can’t know how honest someone you’ve met online is until you meet them in person.

In the meantime, collect evidence that the other person could be lying and evidence that they’re telling the truth. Over time, the distribution of the evidence should indicate their level of honesty. If you have a lot more evidence that suggests they’re lying to you, then you should end the relationship. 

Finally, meet face to face in a public place or through a video chat early in the relationship. The only way to build lasting trust and rapport is by reading the other person’s nonverbal cues.

What to Consider When You Meet New Friends Online

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Like Switch summary:

  • How to cultivate the qualities you need to attract and connect with new friends
  • How to have meaningful, smooth conversations with friends
  • How you can productively manage conflict in relationships

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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