You know how the internet is full of weirdoes and perverts and socially challenged individuals who can’t make friends in the ‘real’ world and therefore do it through online Renaissance role-play? Yes well, you’ve been misinformed. And before I began making friends through online connections I believed the same half-truths about the internet and those who inhabit it’s non-existent borders.
You heard me. I’ve made friends. ONLINE. I’ll wait while you gasp in horror or call my mom (she already knows)…done? Ok then.
Just to be clear, it’s not like I’m just signing up on social networking sites and sending out random messages to the universe ‘Wanna b friendz wit me 4eva?’ or something like that. Most of my friends are like yours, from high school or college or grad school or hockey or whatever. But a few of my friends, a few of my close friends who I turn to for advice, communicate with almost daily, have shared joy and pain with, weren’t met in the traditional way. I’m coming out of the closet.
Even though this shouldn’t be shocking in 2010, the age of 24-hour a day connectivity through cell phones and laptops, the era of Facebook and match.com and so many other social networking sites, it is. Upon telling some of my ‘real-life’ friends that I have ‘online’ friends, their responses have ranged from laughing in my face to simply raising their eyebrows. I think my mom was convinced for a while that these relationships would lead me to be abducted or indoctrinated into a cult or something. And so, after these initial reactions, I started to keep the origins of my online friendships somewhat ambiguous.
When asked how I met my online friends, I had a variety of answers at the ready. Through an international women’s group. Basically true-ish. Through a friend. Not really. We’re both from the U.S. This one only worked on my foreign friends who somehow believe that we would know each other simply through the American connection. Rarely did anyone ever pry for more information, and I never offered it.
So why then, if we’re all so comfortable with the prevalence of the internet in our lives, does it surprise people that I am friends with people I’ve met through this medium? The best I can figure is that we love our connections to people through the internet because it keeps them casual. People love to browse their 600 Facebook ‘friends’ and know all the details of the surface of their lives. People like to believe that their exisiting friendships or relationships are fulfilling enough, even if they are mostly communicating through status updates and text messages, and are somehow more real than anything they could find through an online connection. And maybe people have a hard time believing that I could find more in common with women who were once complete and total strangers (some of whom I still haven’t met in person, LIZ!) than with people whom I have more traditional connections to.
If you saw me with these friends, you wouldn’t think anything strange about it. We visit each other for weekend get-aways, meet each other’s husbands and children, have girly sleepovers and eat brownies and drink wine and exchange recipes, advice and rants.
The truth is that when I moved abroad for the first time in 2006, I turned to the internet as a resource to answer my questions about my new life. Conversions, translations, immigration processes and excursion ideas are all easily accessible that way. And through this research I found a forum where women living abroad and/or in international marriages posted their questions, concerns and feelings about their experiences. A lot of this was really helpful in a specific logistical way, other aspects of it were comforting in times of doubt and homesickness, and overall it was a great form of entertainment to keep at bay the isolation that can creep into any expat life. And through this forum I’ve met some amazing friends. Period.
To me, this is all normal now. These women started as electronic pen-pals, and through writing we were able to share and be open in ways that people often aren’t capable of face-to-face. Was it weird to meet people in person for the first time when our only communication had been online or on the phone? I guess, a little, but it is no weirder than the expectation that we remain friends with people we’ve known since 2nd grade simply because we have a history. Some of my ‘friends’ from school days can’t be bothered to actually ask me how I am doing or remember that I exist when I leave the country. Others do stay in touch and make me feel connected to home, but don’t understand the challenges that living abroad and/or far from our comfort zone can bring. And the void created by those aspects of my other friendships are filled and then some by the friends I have made through the internet while living overseas and elsewhere.
In the end, friendships are about finding people who share interests, respect your ideas, find you hilarious and will get drunk with you but not remind you of the embarrassing things you said the next day. All of my friendships fit this bill, and I feel lucky that some of them cross borders both physical and not. To those of you, and you know who you are, thanks for being there for me when I needed you and for making my life all the more full! (meet me at the virtual Renaissance Fair tomorrow in costume)