On Friendship Between Online Equals


There is an ongoing debate about the value of virtual friendship. In contrast to previous authorships, this paper argues that virtual friendship can have independent value. It is argued that within an Aristotelian framework, some friendships that are perhaps impossible offline can exist online, i.e., some offline unequals can be online equals and thus form online friendships of independent value.

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  1. 1.

    In yet another recent article, Vallor (2012) explores the ethical significance of social networking in relation to friendship and the Aristotelian notion of the good life. Vallor argues that social networking can support and strengthen friendship when used to supplement offline interactions. While Vallor contributes to the discussion on Aristotelian friendship and social networking, she does not discuss whether virtual friendship can be genuine.

  2. 2.

    We deliberately avoid the standard abbreviation IRL (‘in real life’), it being far from obvious that what happens online is not in real life. What happens online is real: online interaction can have consequences for offline life and vice versa. Sharing information online may have legal consequences; sharing information about one’s workplace may impact one’s job; many couples first met online; adolescents’ online relationships may spill over into offline relationships (see Stern 2007, Boase and Wellman (2005), Hampton et al. (2009), Katz and Rice (2002), Raacke and Bonds-Raacke (2008) and Smith (2011)).

  3. 3.

    Munn’s main focus is World of Warcraft (WoW), even though certain other forms of virtual interaction such as Second Life might suit his argument better. These are effectively online meeting places that provide more of a virtual “hangout” than a game and so resemble offline life more than games do.

  4. 4.

    It is standard in the friendship literature to remark that the Greek concept of philia is much wider than the contemporary concept of friendship. If so, then—given the flourishing of online friendship—this may change. In any case, this is a different debate from the one we address here.

  5. 5.

    The Aristotelian notion of virtue is complex and there is a lot to be said about it. Here, we only wish to indicate that virtue is a character trait which makes its owner a good and morally admirable agent. However, it is not reducible to reliable performance acts, but involves acting from certain reasons and having certain affections toward the object of the virtue. The virtuous person takes pleasure in virtuous actions and does them because they are virtuous. For a discussion on the Aristotelian notion of virtue, see Svensson 2006. Aristotles’ discussion on virtue is found in the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics.

  6. 6.

    There are exceptions here: photos and online communication with web cameras, like Skype and Youtube, can (at least to some degree) reveal unintended bodily cues in the sense Cocking and Matthews have in mind. It is also possible that avatars in online games, as a form of replication of the embodied dimension of human communication, may give away bodily cues. For a discussion on how one may give away cues in virtual contexts, see (Søraker 2012, p. 214–5).

  7. 7.

    For a similar argumentation about virtual friendship, see Søraker 2012, p. 215).

  8. 8.

    For the sake of argument, we suppose the existence of something like “genuine” identity without further consideration, fully aware that the precise nature of such an entity is highly controversial.

  9. 9.

    A critique similar to the one put forward by Fröding and Peterson is offered by Sherry Turkle in her Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011).

  10. 10.

    For those interested in reading more about the possible forms of interactions and events in which one can take part in Second Life, we recommend Coming of Age in Second Life, by Tom Boellstorff (2008). Another possibility, of course, is to create an account and avatar of one’s own.

  11. 11.

    For an illuminating study of this topic, we recommend Biggs ‘“Charlotte’s Web:” How one woman weaves positive relationships on the net’ (2000).

  12. 12.

    For the record, our claim is not that persons with impairments lack a good moral character offline. That is surely a false claim. Some people may have evolved a better moral character because of their impairment. What we do claim though is that some people, impaired or not, are hindered—by themselves and/or other people from establishing a good moral character offline, but are able to do so online. And may therefore establish character friendships they would not otherwise have had.


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We wish to thank the following people for helpful and valuable comments during our work with this paper: Marcus Agnafors, Barbro Fröding, Fritz Gåvertsson, Sven Ove Hansson, Asger Kirkeby-Hinrup, Joel Parthemore, Martin Peterson, Per Sandin, Andreas Engh Seland, and Eva Österberg. We also wish to thank the participants at the Research Seminars at The Philosophy Department, Lund University and the Division of Philosophy, Royal Institute of Technology, (KTH), where early drafts were presented. A special thank you to Ingvar Johansson whose comments we have benefited greatly from. We are also grateful for the useful feedback we received from the anonymous reviewers for Philosophy & Technology.

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Correspondence to William Bülow.

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Bülow, W., Felix, C. On Friendship Between Online Equals. Philos. Technol. 29, 21–34 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-014-0183-6

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  • Virtual friendship
  • Social media
  • Philia