10/29/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

The Surprising Relationship Between Bloggers and Their Followers

In 1999, a little more than 20 “weblogs” existed; today’s Internet hosts more than 170 million Tumblr blogs and 75 million WordPress blogs alone.

That rapid expansion, combined with the rise of social media, has paved the way for content creators to build thriving careers sharing their thoughts, tips, and experiences online. In some cases, the web’s viral nature has contributed to blogger scrutiny or cyber bullying, but at its best, it create communities that would never have existed before – online and IRL.

I Will ‘Follow’ You

Whether they actively reach out to bloggers or not, readers tend to feel connected to the people they follow. While scrolling through feeds may seem like a passive activity, the act of “following” is quite powerful. At the most basic level, this confirms that a reader shares interests with a blogger – hey, you like that thing that I like! On a deeper level, a “follow” indicates a vested interest and trust in the blogger’s thoughts, opinions and talents. So when readers see a life unfold online, they often have a surprisingly emotional response.

One reader, a fan of design and DIY blogs, recalled a time when a favorite blogger suddenly reduced her volume of posts.

“I could tell that something had happened in her life because she wasn’t posting as much and there was a space there,” she said. "When you follow someone every day, you notice that.”

Eventually, the blogger, a 20-something who typically shared design and DIY tips, shared that she had been through a breakup. The reader, a photographer in her 30s, appreciated her honesty and empathized: “In that particular post, I could finally see her age. I remembered what it was like to go through that.”

A Two-Way Street

“Part of the responsibility of being an online figure is that you really are opening up to this huge community of people,” says Jessica Goldman Foung, whose blog, Sodium Girl, and book, “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook,” were inspired by her battle with kidney disease. Like most people with an online presence, she has occasionally fielded negative feedback. But, she says, interacting with readers is still the best part of what she does.

“I get these emails from people recently diagnosed with kidney disease who feel like they’ve found the answer to things [in my blog],” she says. “That’s really special.”

Michelle Akin, a life coach and musician who has been vlogging since 2007, says she’s also received countless emails, tweets, and comments from followers who say her vlog helped them through a rough time.

In her case, she’s found that support goes both ways.

Soon after Akin launched her FartwithHeadphonesOn blog on Tumblr and her YouTube channel in 2010, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. During that time, she leaned heavily on her followers for support.

“Having so many people witness my process made the whole thing so much more bearable. I had complete strangers reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, I lost my mom a few years go. Here’s my cell; call anytime.’ I can’t even tell you how much that helped me.”

Are We Friends, Or Is This Just The Internet?

While Akin’s story is remarkable, others worry: Does emotionally connecting with others online breed a false sense of intimacy? We spoke with one blog reader who has concerns about the “reality” she sees online. As she put it, “People can feel very connected to a blogger, but they are seeing such a small percentage of who that person is.”

While positive connections do take place, she worries that the ability to curate and edit one’s Internet presence can be misleading or foster an emotional attachment that might not exist offline.

Bloggers worry about this, too. Though readers seem to have a general understanding that there’s a difference between real-life and online friendships, what that difference is depends on individual interpretation. Many readers respect bloggers’ privacy, but there are occasions when the lines blur.

To help clarify the relationship, some bloggers set boundaries for what they share and don’t share with an audience. Doing so also protects their relationships offline.

“I recognize that my partner didn't choose to be in a relationship that would be written about in a public space,” says writer Shoko Wanger, who shares stories about her childhood, friends, and family on her blog, Sho & Tell. To protect the privacy of her loved ones, she always asks beforehand if she can use their names in posts and avoids discussing romantic relationships.

Jenni Radosevich, the blogger behind ISpyDIY and the book, “I Spy DIY Style,” makes sure everything she posts is in line for her long-term vision for ISpyDIY, noting that once something is on the Internet, it’s hard to take down. She also says a 13-year-old reader she met at a craft event helps her gauge what to share.

“She’s really active on my Instagram,” says Radosevich. “Every time I post something, I think about the fact that she’s going to see it.”

Other bloggers, like Molly Ford, the founder of Smart, Pretty & Awkward, made a conscious choice to stay away from sharing “super-personal stuff” right from the start. Instead, Ford translates her experiences through tips and advice.

Real-Life, True-Blue Friendship

But Ford, like many bloggers, still looks forward to the ultimate reward for connecting with others online: real-life friendship. Though managing online relationships is necessary, the bonds forged online do often translate to real life.

“When someone tells me they read my blog, my first instinct is to ask them to grab coffee because I find my readers are almost always people I would love to be real-life friends with,” says Ford.

Having shared interests, goals, and sensibilities breaks down initial barriers and helps to relieve the social anxiety that strangers meeting face-to-face may have otherwise. Akin, who lives in New York City, even flew to Austin for the wedding of someone she only knew online.

“Perhaps it was risky to do,” she admits, “but it always felt really natural and simple to just trust people. And it has paid off quite a bit. There are so many people in my life that absolutely would not have been there without my Internet presence.”

To continue exploring how we live our lives online, see Paramount Pictures’ “Men, Women & Children” starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner, in theaters now.