If you’ve struggled to make new friends in adulthood, or you feel bewildered about how to make real friends online, this post is for you. In this guide, I’ll show you how to create real friendships from your dozens, hundreds, or thousands of existing online followers. My name is Kat Vellos and I’m a connection coach and the author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships.
The first thing to acknowledge is that “online friends” can certainly be “real friends” too, but a lot of the time we mentally compartmentalize online friends as not-quite-real, because we haven’t interacted with them in the offline world. When we’re away from the internet, these people are not a part of our regular lives. These friendships live inside the computer, smartphone, or app and that’s it. You might call them virtual friends, online friends, digital friends, online acquaintances, or simply followers.
We also know that offline interaction also isn’t enough to qualify someone as a real friend. You’ve no doubt interacted with plenty of people offline and face-to-face that you don’t consider to be your true friends. This list might include neighbors, coworkers, the people you see at the dog park or coffee shop, the parents of your kids’ classmates, and your fellow commuters.
So let’s talk about what steps to take to turn “somebody you just know online” into “a real friend who’s part of both your online and offline life.” If you’ve been wanting to find friendship online, this is the guide you’ll want to save and refer back to.
This guide to making friends online includes:
Scripts: These are sentences you can say to invite someone into the “real friend” or “offline friend” category without being awkward, creepy, or weird.
Actions: There are things you need to do before and after initiating a friendship to make sure that your friendship succeeds. Grab a notebook or a sheet of paper, because you’re going to write down a few things.
Do’s and don’ts: The best practices you want to do — and the pitfalls you want to avoid — to make sure that your new friendships flourish.
What Makes a Good Friendship
In my book, We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships, I lay out numerous characteristics that are typically present in a healthy friendship. These include things like compatibility/chemistry, complementary communication styles (not to be confused with ‘complimentary’ which is nice but not what I’m talking about here), shared values, openness, commitment, trust, reciprocity, and more.
If you’ve already gotten a clear sense that you and a particular online acquaintance have a good amount of things in common and you want to level up your friendship, make a list of the things that make a friendship feel “real” to you.
You might include things like:
- We can each talk about the good and bad things that are going on in our lives.
- We trust each other, and keep each other’s private information confidential.
- We can open up to each other about our fears, anxieties, things we don’t know, and mistakes.
- We share inspiring articles, books, and stories to support each other to learn, grow, and try new things.
- We celebrate our successes and accomplishments because we want to see each other succeed.
- + any other items that make a friendship feel real and fulfilling for you.
Once you’ve got this list clear, knowing that you can always come back and adjust it, it’s time to start creating the runway for your new friendships to take flight. In the next section I’ll give you a shortcut to help you figure out if an online friendship is something that’s likely to grow wings and take flight.
pre-flight checklist for taking your Online Friendship offline
☑️ Do you feel welcome to reach out to this person directly?
Based on your past interactions, do you get the sense that this person would be happy to hear from you? If you’ve gotten signals indicating that the other person wouldn’t or doesn’t welcome you in their DMs, then they’re probably not open to connecting offline either. But if they usually reply to your DMs with the kind of enthusiasm that shows that they’re open to hearing from you, then that’s a good sign that you might be able to develop a closer friendship.
☑️ Do you share info, links, replies, comments, DMs, or support with each other in balanced and mutually invested ways? Is there a back-n-forth to your online conversations, or is just one of you sharing and the other person is doing the bulk of the reading, listening, and responding? A step beyond that: Is one of you sharing and the other person is not responding at all? If that’s the case, you likely don’t have a good seed for offline friendship here. A better situation to build on is a connection where both of you have opened up to share stories, reflections, resources, jokes, and thoughts that are meaningful or vulnerable. Vulnerable doesn’t mean telling your deepest darkest secrets or filling someone’s DMs with pages and pages of text. That might freak someone out and scare your potential friend away. Vulnerable self-disclosure needs to take into account the depth of your relationship, and level up in stages.
If the answer to both of the above questions is a clear and resounding YES, then you’re off to a great start. It sounds like you have a good seed for deeper friendship.
Asking an online acquaintance To Be Your Offline Friend
The next step is to put some feelers out and see if your online acquaintance is open to connecting offline and/or being closer friends. There’s a pretty good chance that they also want to make friends online so they’ll be pumped to hear from you.
Here are a few scripts of what your invitation could sound like. Feel free to modify these and put it in your own words, using examples from your real life obviously:
“Whats up, Lex! 👋🏾 I love chatting with you every time I bump into you online. Your posts always make me stop and think about life in a deeper way. One thing I’ve been doing lately is trying to be more intentional about cultivating friendships off of this social media platform. Do you have any interest in having a chat on the phone this upcoming weekend? I’d especially love to chat about the stuff you were posting this week about purposefully making a more creative and handmade life. 🎨”
“OMG Trish, your IG Stories yesterday about your adventures in the PTA Wild West were cracking me up, I was dying with laughter. 😂💀 I’ve got a hilarious story I want to tell you and I have SO much more I want to add to this topic but it would take me forever to type it out. Are you up for a friendly phone call? I’m free to chat any day after 4pm PT”
“Hey Raheed! I loved your blog post about decoupling identity from job titles. This is something I think about a LOT. And I saw that we’re both friends with Alex M and Sam B, which is a cool small world moment. ✨ Would you be open to chatting more about this topic one day? I book a walk-n-talk either as a phone call or face-to-face hangout each Tuesday and Thursday to connect with a new friend. I’d love to chat with you on one of my upcoming walks! (Side note: I think we’re in adjacent neighborhoods??) No worries if you’re too busy, but we have too many cool things in common for me not to reach out and ask. 😆 🙌🏾”
👉🏾 See what I did there? 😉
NONE of these examples directly nor vaguely asks someone to “be your friend.” Instead, they use existing context, positive affirmation, and a simple invitation for deeper engagement. It usually takes some time to decide if you really want to be ongoing friends with someone, and that decision-making process typically needs at least one or two hangouts to suss out. By just asking for a single hangout, you’re making it easier for you and the other person to explore friendship as a possibility without the pressure of expectation.
How to frame your invitation
I have a lot to say about invitations. I even did my TEDx Talk about it. Here’s how to frame an invitation for an online friend to get closer.
- Build on a conversation-worthy topic that they’ve already brought up. It’s way easier to start a conversation from that jumping off place than to start from a conversational blank slate with some generic, soul-numbing small talk question like “So, how are you? Where are you from? How’s the weather over there?” Ugh, so generic and boring! Avoid this at all costs.
- Affirm the things that you have in common. Having friends or colleagues in common is a primo benefit. It shows that you’re already sorta vetted by your association with a mutual connection, assuming that the mutual person isn’t some kind of evil villain.
- Invite them to deeper connection using something other than text messages, for example: phone call, facetime, or a face-to-face hangout. Just keep in mind that a lot of people have zoom fatigue so might want to aim for something other than video chat.
- If you live nearby each other, you can also put a creative spin on a face-to-face hangout, such as a park stroll, after-work drink, playdate for your kids or dogs, hot cocoa with a Youtube fireplace, or Saturday crafternoon. (Listen to a 90-second clip of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, describing how she forged a friendship with anti-racist activist and writer Rachel Cargle by inviting her to come over and play with art supplies.)
- Make sure that your invitation includes one or two day-n-time options for connection. It’s easier for someone to say Yes to your invite — or wiggle it to another day or time if you’ve already put an option on the table.
When you do these reach-outs, aim to be flexible, warm, and generous. Hold the possibility in your heart that this will work. If you extend five or ten invitations like this, at least one or two people will respond with an enthusiastic yes. And difficult though it might be, try to not be attached to the outcome. There is a very real possibility that even if you craft a beautiful invitation, someone still might need to turn it down.
I’m gonna be real with you: Taking a risk to put yourself out there like this often wakes up a sneaky little rascal called Fear of Rejection. Any time there’s a possibility you might hear the word “no,” this little rascal loves to pop in with its sidekick, The Inner Critic, who’s caffeinated and ready to criticize every tiny action you take. If they show up, invite them to have a seat in the fireplace. Even though they can be distracting little jerks, they are here because underneath it all, they’re trying to protect you. Remind them that you don’t need their protection right now, so they can kindly see themselves out through the chimney. Adios, ya lil scoundrels. 👋🏾 😈 🔥.
If you send your reach-outs and folks decline or don’t respond, try not to take it personally. Almost all of the time, rejection has nothing to do with you. If being rejected is scary for you, or you need to take the sting out of it, check out my advice column about dealing with rejection and dealing friends who aren’t responsive.
Next step: Look over your list of followers. There’s bound to be a mix of people that you know well already, some folks that you recognize and know a little about, and some folks you don’t recognize and know almost nothing about! That’s extremely common on social media. But since this post is about making real friendships online — that you can potentially take offline — this is a good time to think about your reason for amassing followers at all.
Be Honest: Are You Online to Make Friends or to Gain Followers?
For this section, I’m gonna hand the mic to my friend and colleague, Salman Ansari. He shared the excerpt below as a blog post in March 2021, and it’s so instructive that I asked him if I could include it here so you could benefit from his wisdom. He wrote this post after crossing a follower milestone that he thought was going to matter. Here’s Salman in his own words:
“I wasn’t sure how it would feel to have 2,000 followers on Twitter, but I expected to feel something. When it finally happened, I felt nothing. I was surprised by this — when accounts hit a milestone like that, they often share a celebratory tweet (or even use it as cause to do an Ask Me Anything session.) I thought I’d feel the same way, but I didn’t feel motivated to do any of those things. It felt utterly insignificant.
There’s a strange emptiness in reaching a milestone you expected to matter, only to find that it doesn’t. It gave me pause. I slowed my pace in the marathon, and wondered why the hell I’m still running.
I know there’s a reason I was doing this — but it was no longer clear to me. Maybe the prolonged brain fog of a life in lockdown has blurred my vision. Perhaps my motivations have changed. Either way, I needed a reason to stay in the race. The ambiguous hope of algorithmically-determined attention wasn’t enough. I wanted a stronger why.
I thought about the moments I enjoyed most on Twitter. What gave me joy?
I closed my eyes and imagined the meaning hidden within the metrics. Embedded within all those followers was a (much smaller) collection of wonderful human beings that I have tweeted with, conversed with, emailed with, hopped on video calls with, and in some cases gone on to hang out with in person. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of my best friends in real life are people I met on Twitter.
The clarity returned: It’s about the friends, of course! The act of building a following serves us best when used as a means to an end (e.g. making friends), rather than the end goal itself.
We can’t escape the race, but perhaps we can run by our own rules. The way I want to run this race is to prioritize friends over followers.
You might be wondering: “Why does any of this matter? Either way, I’m building followers…”
Your intent matters because your intent is visible to others. How you think about growth will affect the kind of content you create and share, which will impact the kind of followers you get, and the friends you make from them.
The friends we attract will be determined by the signals we broadcast, and the vibe we curate. With every word, every tweet, and every essay, we send a signal to others about what matters to us, what’s meaningful to us, and how we’d like to connect. As @visakanv explains, “Every ‘utterance’ (status, tweet, whatever) is a bit of an invitation, a bit of a proposal.”
Choose your signals wisely.
Ultimately, we have to make trade-offs. If we optimize for friends, it will likely come at the cost of followers. The other day, I was tweeting a thread about the frustrations I feel playing the comparison game on social media. As much as I wanted to feel inspired when others shared their sales numbers and growth statistics, it often threw me into a comparison spiral. I spoke honestly about my struggles with it, and how I was working on it. Afterwards, I noticed I lost a bunch of followers, but also got this message from a new friend: “Hi Salman, just got onto the twitter bandwagon and have to say that I find your tweets very honest. Thanks for the reminders you post for yourself which serve all of us well.”
For me, gaining a new friend is more than worth the expense of losing followers. I’ll happily make that tradeoff, because I’m building followers in order to make friends. Keeping our intent in mind helps us interpret events with a sound mind (rather than simply being discouraged by seeing a metric go down.)
Once we focus our attention on building friendships, the question then becomes: How do we attract friends? What can we do to increase the chance that our interactions foster friendships, rather than just grow followers?
The short answer is vulnerability. When people see a consistent flavor of your authentic self, you gain their trust. They see you being vulnerable, and that makes them more comfortable doing the same. This is the spark needed to create deeper connections.
Michael Ashcroft speaks well to the power of letting others find us through our vulnerability (as well as the risk it brings) saying:
“In any situation there could be others who could become close friends. How? By being vulnerable and by going first. To be vulnerable is to show others the deeper parts of ourselves. We have no control over what happens next — that’s why it can be so scary. We can only hope that we won’t get hurt, but we might, and the more we do it, the more likely we are to get hurt. But there’s no other way to turn that vicious circle into a virtuous one.”
If we seek the rewards of friendship, we must risk the pain of rejection.
It’s no wonder then, that so many don’t bother. It’s in our nature to avoid pain. We’d rather not play the game at all. But the reality is that we cannot avoid pain — the idea that we can escape pain is only an illusion. The psychologist Joseph Adler said, “To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone.”
A life alone may be free of pain from others, but it is empty of life’s greatest gift: the unique joy of relationships. The contagious laughter of friends, the creative spark of collaboration, the natural comfort of human connection.
Life is about the friends we make along the way.”
Well said, my friend. Well said. 👏🏾 👏🏾
Another thing I love about Salman’s reflection is that it highlights just how fleeting and ephemeral our connections on social media can be.
Twitter’s implosion proves that you can’t rely on a social media platform to maintain your friendships for you. You need to take active steps to turn your platform-hosted-friendships into real friendships if you want to hang onto them.
If you’re successful in your attempts at transforming online friends into real friendships that are more integrated into your life, then comes the question, how do you keep your friendships going strong? If you don’t have five hours to listen to me reading you my entire audiobook about how to succeed at adult friendship, here instead are two quick tips you can start using today.
2 Hot Tips for Keeping Your New online-offline Friends
#1: Connect in a Variety of Different Ways
Make your friendship multidimensional by interacting with your friends in more than one way:
- Don’t only text message.
- Don’t only talk on the phone.
- Don’t only limit your conversations to those rare times you can be face-to-face.
- Mix it up!
Asynchronous communication that doesn’t happen at the same time — like texts, voice memos, Marco Polo/Voxer, email, and snail mail — allows you to reach out to each other at times when your schedule can’t align. But synchronous interactions that happen in real time i.e. phone calls, video calls, face-to-face friend dates, and group hangouts intensify the speed and depth of your conversations and shared memories.
Let your friendship benefit from many different kinds of touchpoints. If you want to have fresh, unique, engaging, and deep conversations but your mind tends to blank out, I highly recommend checking out my Better than Small Talk conversation cards or my Better Conversations Calendar/Kit. They’ll give you enough prompts, questions, and conversation starters to last an entire year.
#2: Go Beyond “Sending love and light” By Being Truly Helpful
Let your friend know that they can come to you if they ever need help, a listening ear, advice, suggestions, or support. Clarify what kinds of support you’re willing to help out with. As I describe in We Should Get Together, there are four main ways of giving functional social support: emotional, tangible, informational, and companionate.
- Emotional support (a.k.a. esteem support or appraisal support) looks like giving someone love, affection, acceptance, caring, empathy, and other behaviors that foster mutually positive feelings.
- Tangible support is concrete and direct, like helping someone move from one apartment to another, giving them money, or making them meals.
- Informational support includes helping someone conduct research, giving advice, offering recommendations or introductions, and suggesting practical solutions.
- Companionate support is given and received when we are simply present with each other in ways that contribute to feelings of belonging, like showing up to celebrate someone’s birthday, visiting them when they’re in the hospital, or sitting together quietly when you know they’re having a hard day.
Be specific about the kinds of help you’d be delighted to offer. For inspiration, listen to my Hurry Slowly podcast episode with Jocelyn K Glei in which she tells the story of how she formed a new friendship when an acquaintance offered to help her move to her new town.
Very independent folks that are used to doing everything on their own might not even think about asking for help. Other times, people know they need help but still have trouble asking.
Usually people don’t ask for help because of one or more of these reasons:
C) They don’t know who they can turn to for a certain kind of help
By offering a specific type of help — or at least a couple specific categories of help — you’re making it easier for them to do the vulnerable task of asking for help. You’re also increasing the likelihood that you’ll only get asked to do something that you truly want to do.
When you’re checking in with a friend who’s going through a tough time, try out some of these alternative questions so you don’t overwhelm them by repeatedly asking “how are you?”
And don’t forget that support is a two-way street and healthy friendships require balance and reciprocation. So if you need help one day, reach out and let your friend know how they can be there for you too. People feel weird when they sense imbalance in a relationship, so let your friends help you too.
Three mistakes to avoid when making friends online
Mistake #1: Confusing Parasocial Relationships with Real Friendships
In my book about adult friendship, We Should Get Together, I describe the danger of letting yourself think that your parasocial relationships are actually your real friends. Parasocial relationships are the imaginary feelings of closeness that grow when you passively absorb a lot of content about someone else. These feelings can grow even if the other person hardly knows anything about you, if they even know you at all. The term was coined in the 1950s by psychologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton to describe the imaginary relationship that fans think they have with celebrities. It is extremely easy for digital followership to turn into parasocial relationships.
Nowadays, when people have hundreds or thousands of followers on social media, it can turn us all into tiny celebrities in our own microscopic universes.
The freaky thing is that you can be on either side of a parasocial relationship. You can have a parasocial relationship with people whose content you passively consume which leads you to start feeling like “you know them”, and your followers can form a parasocial relationship with you by passively consuming your posts and thinking that they really know you too. If too much of this goes on, it can turn life into a vortex of diaphanous and false relationships that trick us because they feel real but there’s nothing underneath, like a puffy meringue shell that’s hollow in the middle.
To learn more about parasocial relationships, read or listen to the chapter called Antisocial Media in my book, and check out this episode of The Cut podcast.
Mistake #2: Picking the Wrong Sandbox to Play In
Ashley Ruth Bovin, a marketing consultant who helps business owners create calm companies, encourages online friend-seekers to reflect on which online spaces they’ve thoroughly enjoyed being in before. Not the ones that give you anxiety, or the apps that you keep installed on your phone because it seems like the most popular sandbox on the internet. If you’re not having fun at that sandbox, it’s ok to leave.
Ashley suggests, “Think back to a time when you really enjoyed being online and felt most connected to others. A time when you felt seen and heard and a sense of belonging. What was the platform that you used the most at this time? And what was it about that platform and your experience on it that you enjoyed?”
She continues, sharing her own story, “I’ve found that the time I’ve enjoyed spending online the most has been in purpose-centered, closed community groups or curated conversations that fostered connection around shared goals or topics of interest. It’s because of these online communities that I’ve done the most growth in the last 3 years. … I know that really any platform can create these kinds of experiences, but two that have had the most impact on me have been privately hosted—not on social media.”
There are lots of reasons to choose a smaller sandbox. Maybe you crave a more intimate gathering space with fewer members and more shared interests. Maybe you prefer to have a mellower, more chill online conversational experience. Some folks get overwhelmed when they’re a member of apps or online communities where thousands of people create a constant firehose of posts and comments. It’s ok to step out if that overwhelms you or leaves you feeling unsatisfied, unheard, unseen, or if it leads to comparisonitis.
Mistake #3: Leaving Reconnection Up To Chance
Shortly before the COVID pandemic, I went to a weekend retreat for heart-centered women business owners. While there, I became acquaintances with another woman who I had a few things in common with: we were both coaches, both queer, and both hoping to make more solopreneur friends. We did what a lot of people do when they meet someone cool — we started following each other on Instagram. But we didn’t stop at IG, which is where a lot of people’s new friendships start fizzling out.
We also set up a friend date to have a coworking session at my house. When COVID broke out in our local area a week later and lockdown prevented us from hanging out, we kept our friendship going throughout the pandemic via a biweekly “watercooler-hangout” phone call. Consistency is key!
If your friendship has a strong spark and momentum at the beginning, keep it going by creating a recurring day and time when you always plan to reconnect. Sure, you can wiggle the time here and there when other scheduling conflicts come up. But by having your hangouts booked in advance, you never have to worry if it’s ok to reach out again or if your pal wants to talk to you again. If it’s on the calendar, then you eliminate all those doubts and inefficiencies.
Success Story: From a 1-time meeting to a 1-year friendship
If you don’t think going to a one-time zoom event can result in a real friendship, I want you to hold onto the story of Lisa and Rana (names changed to protect their privacy). In the Spring of 2021, Lisa and Rana both attended a workshop and friendship matchmaking event that I host called Here to Make Friends.
As you can guess from the event’s name, everyone who attends is hoping to make some new friends, so they already know that this shared goal is something they have in common with everyone else they meet. This is a brilliant shortcut and much better than going to a random meetup. At a gathering like this, you don’t have to guess if the other attendees want new friends — at Here to Make Friends, their presence is confirmation that they DO want to make friends and they’re curious to get to know you.
During one of the breakout discussions, Lisa and Rana got paired and they had a rousing chat. At the end of the event, I presented an optional challenge to the group for folks to reach out to one person they met and invite that person to keep in touch. Lisa and Rana agreed they both wanted to stay in touch and see what happened.
Over the next twelve months, with ongoing texts, voice memos, and occasional face-to-face hangouts, Lisa and Rana turned a chance online meeting into a consistent and durable friendship. They even succeeded at forming this friendship during a pandemic with numerous phases of lockdown and physical distancing. You can do this too. To attend my next Here to Make Friends gathering, add your name to the waitlist.
I hope this guide helps you create more fulfilling digital friendships, and stronger offline friendships too. If you liked this post and you’d like to get ongoing support, thought-provoking essays, and supportive resources for creating friendships during adulthood, hop into my newsletter. I send it twice a month, it’s free, and you can cancel any time.
Wishing you a friend-filled week! Kat Vellos, author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships
Every two weeks, I share a newsletter with resources, reflections, and tools to help you create better friendships in adulthood. Subscribe below — it's free and you can cancel any time.