Sometimes, a real friend is someone that you may have never met face-to-face.

With Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, staying in contact with past friends and current ones has never been easier. Chatting with my childhood friends from Japan and my dear cousins in the Philippines is as convenient as a few keystrokes.

But what about meeting new people online?

Limiting our scope of friends to only those we meet or converse with in person is, in this day and age, ignorant. The internet has given us the ability to search for new friends remotely, allowing us to interact with people we would normally never be able to communicate with – much less meet – outside of the online world.

I have several good friends that I've met online, and though I have not met any of them in person, I trust them just as much – and sometimes more than – as friends I have here at UT.

The stance that society has towards online relationships, however, is less than accepting. For many people, the concept of "online friends" is disconcerting. We hear from friends and media about the "creepers" that lurk all over the Internet, lying in wait to ambush and prey on 12-year-olds harmlessly wandering social media. We hear of the numerous cases where such relationships crossed into the real world, with sometimes lethal consequences.

Though the issue of privacy is a well-known factor, I think there's another reason that people can be uneasy with online relationships: the lack of non-verbal communication.

When we talk with others, we ask them about themselves, trying to read and gauge the person they are. When we socialize online, though, it's much more difficult – we can't read them through the normally present sub-forms of communication. We can't see their body language, their change in the tone of voice and their interactions with other people that we know.

The discomfort and fear of meeting new people exists, both in face-to-face and online interactions. We can't tell if we're talking with a real person, or a façade of a person.

Just like any relationship with a person in real-world circumstances, the amount of time spent and the degree of social interaction are big factors. Spending time with a person allows you to learn how he or she acts, and to determine the authenticity of what they say and what they do.

Two years ago, I met several people in an Internet video chat room. Hearing about it from a friend of mine, I was curious to see what it would be like. Although it was initially awkward, I continued to chat and talk with them, learning more and more about them each time. We shared stories – good and bad – about our lives; we talked about our likes and dislikes; debated over topics philosophical and practical; we even danced together to weirdly hilarious videos.

As strange it is sounds, everything we did together helped strengthen our friendship. The things we planned and did together, when combined to the effort, time and consolation we've given to each other, support and link us together as friends.

Online friendships are not so different from the movie nights and "deep-thinking" discussions people have in real-world circumstances.

Recently, I enjoyed an eight hour Skype chat with one of them, staying awake from midnight to morning with them. Knowing how happy it makes me feel talking with them has made me realize that, in the end, friends are friends, regardless of how far they may be.

Distance does not determine friendships – the essence of talking and interacting with a person who is both inwardly and outwardly honest determines friendships.

By that definition, you could say that my online friends are more real and trustworthy than some friends in my own city. I'm honored to know that I can rely on these "close" friends in my time of need, and vice-versa.

Jan Urbano is a senior in biological sciences. He can be reached jurbano@utk.edu.