In 1998 I first began using the internet regularly. I immediately recognized it as an outlet for communicating in ways that I found more difficult to achieve in real life conversations. And as a result, I began to put more and more stock in the friendships I have made there over the years.
The usual rhetoric, even on the internet, suggests that internet friendships and activity are not as meaningful as real life activities. And yet the internet exists in the ‘real world’ and should not be seen as separate from it. How human beings communicate, interact and play has evolved through both social and technological advances all throughout time. We can even observe it doing so in our lifetimes, as technological advance has accelerated rapidly and exponentially in recent decades. So to view internet friendship as less real or meaningful as those friendships we nurture in physical presence is false.
The reasons that I have come to love the internet are many. Yet I will describe only those that describe its use for social functions.
The first is that the internet allows us to find friends with similar interests and values more easily than in physical presence. Outside of the internet, your chances are astronomically low of meeting people in your geographic locality who share a large number of your personality traits, opinions and joys. The smaller or more remote your location, the more difficult it becomes to seek out the like-minded. Yet since we should not limit ourselves to those who think, feel and act like us, the internet also provides a much larger range of viewpoints than location alone. Where we may avoid people we don’t like and miss their viewpoints in ‘real life’, we may be more likely to absorb thoughts, experiences and ideas that we would otherwise not take in.
The second, and I suspect more personally important reason, is that I simply prefer text to talk. Talking is easy to mess up. But in a format where we can edit and refine our thoughts, we are able to break free of social limitations, necessities and difficulties to have more poignant, distinct and revealing conversations. There is no awkward silence in text, at least not in the same way it exists in speaking conversations. There are also less expectations for when a reply will come. All of this affords one the ability to reread, absorb more deeply and formulate the most appropriate and elegant response. Not that we always do this…not that I always do this, but we are always afforded that opportunity. And besides that, it is also difficult to endure stammering or endless side-lining in others speech difficulties or quirks. Sometimes the sort of brunt immediacy of speaking/hearing create conditions in which good communication becomes far more difficult.
So having spent years online making and fostering friendships, I often find myself more active in and attached to many of those relationships than in most of my traditional friendships. And like in traditional friendship, the people I have formed bonds with online provide support, challenges and pleasure. We fight and make up. We laugh together and share sorrow. And we help one another grow as individuals.
One internet friend, a person I never met in real life, yet have known for years, recently died. Diane Miller is one the rarest of friendships I ever had. It is rarely that we see others as truly equal to ourselves. While we may admire and envy our friends, we often think of ourselves as the smarter, or more talented or kind one; usually depending on the qualities we value most in ourselves. With Diane I felt she was equal to me in all the measurements I weigh most heavily in myself (and thus in others). And I am an unusually confident and cocky bastard, so this is very rare for me.
When I first learned of her death I was filled with a great sadness. As she would have expected of me and done herself, I explored that feeling. And having done I found that my sadness was not fer, but for me. Diane had no fear of, or exaggerated desire to avoid death at any cost. Neither did she regret her life or feel she still had things to make up for. She contracted an unknown illness months before and passed away quietly one morning during breakfast. She did not fight for her life by becoming dependent on the medical systems and social structures and other necessities they operated alongside. She was also had her own unique views on spirituality and our deeper nature which kept her from being to attached to the world or afraid of leaving it. So when I realized I should not be sad merely because her life ended, I figured out why I was actually upset.
No longer could I ever call on her intelligence, wisdom and wit to inspire me or set me straight. No longer could I seek her opinion, her counsel or her support. This is why I was distraught at her death, and will continue to mourn for this selfish loss for awhile.
So I find it hard to believe that my friendship with Diane was less real or meaningful than ‘real life’ friendships. The sort of loyalty, dependency and love inherent in those friendships was exactly what I knew I would miss most when I lost my ‘internet friend’.
(From the wall posts I read after her passing, many people felt much as I did about her, and she seemed to be a great friend, mentor and inspiration to many.)
There is nothing less real about the internet or the relationships it fosters than anything else in existence. The internet is wonderful tool for learning, sharing and connecting. It, like everything else, is a tool by which we are learning to be whatever it is that we are. We should not disparage it or any other new paradigms. Least not since they occur ever more quickly all the time. As Diane would have said:
“There must be some reason over seven billion people chose to be here right now.”