We've never met in person. Is Dan my real life friend?

He sent a note in Facebook, to let me know about his “massive shift” using social media.

He said he was winnowing down to “IRL” friends and he wished me the best. We’re still connected on Twitter and LinkedIn, so he hasn’t disappeared completely.

I felt grateful for the note. Even though I didn’t regularly comment on his Facebook posts, I paid attention. We share a love for running, a home state, and a deep faith. I would have noticed the sudden cessation of his posts in my News Feed. I would have felt bewildered if I looked and found myself suddenly unfriended. (It’s happened before; I try, sometimes unsuccessfully, not to take it personally.)

I can’t begin to guess his reason for the shift, but I can understand, on some levels.

Navigating social media channels and maintaining balance between work life, family life, and online life can be challenging. Maintaining connections to a large number of online friends is time consuming.

Not everyone wants to share their lives and thoughts with a virtual room full of people. Can you really call them all friends? Would you call them strangers?

Of my 891 (now 890), only a few are friends that I see every week. A few are family, many are friends from various stages of my life: high school, college, grad school, former coworkers.

Many are friends I’ve met online through Twitter and blogging. Some are collaborators, some are clients, some — although not many — are people I don’t know very well at all.

Are they real life friends?

When does an online contact become a real life friend? Does it happen when you meet face to face for the first time? Or when you have a Skype call? When you exchange emails or talk on the phone? When their face is familiar and you can tick off a list of their likes and dislikes?

Where is the line for you?

Does it shift?

Can you identify the moment when someone moves from being an online contact (fan, friend, follower, or connection) to being a friend in real life?

Does it matter? 

What would you gain if you decided to limit Facebook to real life friends only? What would you lose?

Tell me something! Are we real life friends? How do you define real life friends? How do you know when someone shifts from being an online contact to a real life friend?

Pictured to the right is Dan Rockwell, who writes the popular Leadership Freak blog. Even though we have never met, I consider him a real friend.