Close Connection: Common interests bond online friends

PHOTO CREDIT: diego_cervo

Jutta Ebbertz

Amanda Miller, of Dubuque, (left) and Jutta Ebbertz, of Germany, are best friends from afar. Photos contributed.

Stephanie Cocagne

It’s a BFF match made in cyberspace.

Amanda Miller, 31, is a patient services representative at Grand River Medical Group in Dubuque. She loves opera, Broadway show music and watching “Gilmore Girls.”

Jutta Ebbertz is a 23-year-old ballerina and a student at the University of Cologne in Germany. She also loves opera, Broadway show music and watching “Gilmore Girls.”

Miller has never been to Germany. Ebbertz has never been to Dubuque. But the pair consider each other best friends.

Separated by 4,298 miles, the two women have been growing their friendship for five years thanks to the Internet.

“Our friendship began when I was maybe 17 or 18,” said Ebbertz via Facebook Messenger. “I had a phase where I was crazy about opera and a specific opera singer. I didn’t know anyone in the town where I grew up who was interested in that sort of thing. So I started searching online for opera forums and blogs, and that’s how I found Amanda.”

Miller said their communication during the first year was sporadic, and they didn’t share much personal information.

“I didn’t friend her for a year on Facebook,” she said. “When I finally did, she said, ‘Oh good, you don’t think I’m a serial killer.’”

The news about online friendships hasn’t always been positive. Cyberbullying, human trafficking and even murders have made headlines.

The MTV-produced show, “Catfish,” profiles people who have become emotionally involved with someone they’ve met online who, more often than not, turn out not to be who they said they were. A “catfish” is defined as someone who creates a false identity using social media. The show’s eighth season premiered in January.

Miller said she never doubted the validity of her and Ebbertz’s friendship, but her mother had concerns, and some friends were a bit puzzled that she considered someone she’d only met through a computer a close friend.

“I’m not embarrassed by our friendship, but there are people who think it’s weird,” she said. “My mom would ask, ‘Are you sure she’s real?’ There’s still a bit of a stigma, I think, to an online friendship like this.”

Stephanie Cocagne, LCPC, of Clear Mind, Open Heart Counseling in Galena, Ill., said online connections are becoming part of our everyday existence.

“I work with a lot of teens,” she said. “And all of them have online friends they haven’t met.”

In a 2015 survey conducted by Skout, a social networking and dating app, 56% of women said they had a close online friendship with someone they’d never met.

“The perception of online friendships is changing,” Cocagne said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a shift in attitudes. They are very common.”

Despite the acceptance of these connections, especially in the dating world, Miller said she still feels as if people view her and Ebbertz’s friendship as strange.

“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Poor you, you can’t get friends in real life,” she said. “But it’s not like that at all.”

Cocagne said just as it took a few years for online dating to become an accepted part of the mainstream, online friendships are not far behind.

“As we see more and more of these friendships develop, it will become a normal part of everyday life,” she said.

Miller and Ebbertz text with each other several times per day. Ebbertz said she believes she can reach out to her best friend any time of the day or night.

“With my friends here in Germany, I might talk to them on the phone once a week or meet up with them when we can schedule something,” she said. “With Amanda, I can text her anything at any time, and I will never feel stupid. I could text, ‘I hate chamomile tea,’ and I wouldn’t feel like I was bothering her. And I know I will always get a response.”

Miller and Ebbertz both said the ease of communicating with each other is a big plus in their friendship.

“We message multiple times a day,” Miller said. “We send videos back and forth, we watch movies. We even watch them together online.”

Miller takes credit for introducing Ebbertz to “Gilmore Girls.”

“She’s hooked, and so are her parents,” she said.

Cocagne agreed that this accessibility is one of the reasons many people connect online.

“Any time of the day we can reach out to people,” she said.

Cocagne said that online friendships can be rewarding, but balancing them with your other relationships is a must.

“If you are connecting with someone across the country, but you’re not connecting with your family or your co-workers, then that’s a red flag,” she said. “It’s important to have both kinds of social interaction in your life.”

As their friendship has grown, the best friends have exchanged birthday and Christmas gifts each year, sent DVDs and magazine clippings to each other, and provided each other with small gifts like certain candies that can’t be found in their respective countries.

“Of all the American candy in existence, Jutta is obsessed with Nerds,” said Miller.

“Amanda was cheering me up when I had my first serious heartache,” said Ebbertz. “We both get a lot of support from each other, and that is what is so amazing to me about this friendship.”

If finances come together and schedules coincide, the friends hope to make their dream of meeting in person a reality in 2021.

“Crossing that stupid Atlantic costs a lot,” Ebbertz said. “But it will happen.”

Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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