How these people turned online connections into face-to-face friendships

For those who are online a lot, it’s no longer unusual to make the transition from virtual conversations to real-life friendships, says Andrea Mara

Sinéad Murphy, Cork, with her children Clodagh and Conor. Picture: Denis Minihane

I checked my hair one last time and walked towards the pub. Outside I hesitated and clicked into Facebook to look at the profile picture one more time. Then again, people don’t always look like they do in their Facebook pictures I thought, as I pushed the door open and walked inside. Scanning the room, I felt a surge of nerves. I spotted someone waving, and walked over. “I’m Andrea,” I said. “I’m Sadhbh,” she replied with a smile, and we sat and chatted as though we’d known each other all our lives.

In fact, we had known each other for some time, but only online, as part of a Facebook group for parent bloggers. This was our first real-life meeting, and four years later, we’re still friends. Sadhbh is just one of the many online pals I’ve met with in recent years — I’ve had coffees and nights out with people from parenting, blogging, and creative writing groups, and everyone is just as lovely in real life as they are online.

This is a relatively new phenomenon and one that still raises eyebrows among people who don’t spend much time online. But for those of us who do, it’s no longer unusual to make the transition from virtual conversations to real-life friendships.

Nicola Naessens from Wexford joined an online birth club when she was expecting her fourth child, and as her due date approached, another mum suggested they set up a private Facebook group. “Initially there were 40 of us in the group, and today, five years later, there are still 35. There’s such diversity, we’re all different ages — the youngest girl is in her early 20s, then some of us are at the other end of it! But we all just genuinely gelled and it was so nice during those last few weeks of pregnancy to have these other women who were in the same situation. And no matter what time of day or night, someone was there to chat.”

That of course is the beauty of a Facebook group — your best friend might not appreciate a call at 7am to tell her that your baby was up all night, but if you post online, there’s always a listening ear. Forums and groups are like the chat you’d have in a coffee shop if you could see your friends at any given moment — which of course because of work and distance, isn’t always possible.

Nicola agrees. “If you’re at home all day or have a child with colic, groups like this are a lifeline. Sometimes when you put something out there it’s not that you want advice, you just want a bit of empathy.”

Nicola Naessens joined an online birth club when she was expecting her fourth child.

Limerick-based Alison Morris is a member of the same Facebook group and found it to be a great outlet when she was expecting her second child. “Years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of having close friendships online, but at 4am when a baby is kicking and you’ve been up to the loo for the 10th time that night, it was great to log on and find someone who was in the same unfortunate position. And if you have something on your mind, it could be days before you see a real-life friend.”

By definition, every member of the group was due a baby in March 2012, so the entire month was spent on baby-watch, says Nicola.

“One was born in April, and two in February but all the rest were born in March. We were logging on every morning to see who’d had their baby during the night. A few were born on the same day — there aren’t many days in March when there isn’t a birthday. So each year now, March is special to us — it signifies the importance of the group and how close we’ve all become.”

The transition to real life meet-ups started early, with a first day out in Limerick back when the babies were small, followed by a night out in Dublin. Alison has become very good friends with another member who also lives in Limerick. “I see her every week and the boys are very close, they do rugby-tots together. Fionn and Daithí, born a week apart, have a very special bond. Our children are what brought us together and we’re happy to see them form their own little friendships. If it wasn’t for our children, we would never have met, but we went from being mothers-to-be to being friends. When I’m travelling for work I call in to people too — you go into the house and carry on the conversation you started online.”

The first time Nicola met with her online friends was in Naas, and she remembers wondering if it would be awkward. “I had only met a couple of them before, but I walked in and there was no awkwardness at all — we were just chatting like we do online every day. And there’s so much to talk about with that many kids.”

Alison Morris, with son Fionn, 5, is a member of the same Facebook group as Nicola.

Sinéad Murphy from Cork has made friends on Twitter when she took a break from her full-time job.

“I was working fulltime in a hectic, busy job, when a career break opportunity came up and I decided to take it. It coincided with my son starting preschool so while I was delighted to be off, I was also feeling a bit isolated. When you go from full-time work to being at home, it’s an adjustment, and there’s a bit of a void, especially if all your friends are working.”

So Sinéad joined Twitter, mostly to follow newspapers and authors. “I was following a number of writers, including Marian Keyes, and I started to have a rapport with a group of people who were also following her. We’re a diverse group but have lots in common. We talk about books, we share tips, ask for advice. There’s nothing too personal but great camaraderie. Twitter gives you access to other people; you can get involved in debates on news, and feel part of something bigger. It’s very empowering and throws things across your bow that you might not get in your own world.”

Sinéad went on to meet her Twitter friends at an event in Smock Alley at which Marian Keyes was speaking. “I had pre-arranged to meet one woman who I’d now call a friend, and inside I met 15 or 20 others. It’s funny when you recognise people you know online. I sat with this woman I’d had banter with and it was like meeting a buddy — I remember thinking I felt so at ease in her company, it was just a really lovely experience.”

Sinéad’s friendships have continued and grown in the intervening years, and transitioned into more traditional forms of communication.

“Now we send each other birthday cards, postcards from holidays, or just a card out of the blue. I’ve got birthday presents and Christmas presents in the post! The nicest way is if someone isn’t expecting it — you have a terrible day at work, and you come home to a lovely surprise.”

She still finds Twitter a great outlet. “It challenges your views and your bias. Even though I’ve travelled widely, my world now is quite small, and Twitter very much opens it up.”




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