I’ve been having a tough time emotionally lately, and for various reasons I haven’t really wanted to talk about it much to my Real Life colleagues and family members. In the spirit of not using my blog just to whine about Feckless and his Mongolian Floozy, I am not going to talk about it here, either. What I really wanted to write about was about the nature of online friendships, and how interestingly intimacy and anonymity interact.
I’ve developed some really interesting online frienships with people I know from a particular forum; I liked what they had to say, and maybe we also hung out in chat together, or exchanged messages or emails. These friendships are based originally on a meeting of the minds; they are with people who are so separated from me in age, or geography (or both) that there is no way we would have met, let alone become friends in a real life situation, but that impossibility is part of what makes me treasure these intimacies. I pick these people to be friends with because we share some essential similarities – they make me laugh; they make me think about stuff; we don’t need a history together, all we need are common interests and philosophies.
In real life, we meet people, and we share experiences, and we have some stuff in common, but often, I find, with real life friends, you make allowances for opinions and personality traits that piss you off. My best friend at university was a vet student who was great fun, but gradually became less and less of a kindred spirit as time passed and the things I dismissed as her annoying quirks became more and more central to her personality. Sometimes we hang on to these kinds of friends – I only really dropped the Vet because I moved to a different country. If we still lived in the same city, we would probably still hang out occasionally.
Work friends you like because of proximity, and for me, because I like to exchange ideas at work, and I spend part of my day hanging out. Apparently, this makes me “a good colleague,” according to my Chair. I like the a lot of my colleagues, but I also know that if I quit my job tomorrow, I would never bother to talk to the majority of them again, and I wouldn’t feel that as a huge loss.
Online friends for me are a matter of pure choice. There’s no social obligation attached, really, and people come and go much more freely than they do in real life (big showy exits are more frequent in online communities, but so are quiet, creeping returns). Silence is much more common, and sometimes its hard to know how to interpret it – if your real life friends hang up or stop calling, it is a big deal, but online friends might just have had computer trouble or borken internets.
People who don’t have an online social life say stuff like “but how do you know if what they tell you about themselves is true?” which is a fair point in evaluating friendships according to real life criteria. However, I’m quite happy to have a friendship with an online persona, and not trouble myself too much about how true it is to the “real” person. If your persona is much more fun and interesting and intelligent than your real self, I think maybe that says something about the quality of “real” life, rather than something about honesty.
We all create online selves; we reveal what we want to reveal, but if what you show me of yourself is something I like, why should I be too worried about whether you are a married mother of 4 who claims to be a younger woman or a single 30-something who pretends to be an old guy?
Likewise, maybe the quality of the support network offered by online friendships is not the same as “real” friends who bring you icecream or help you move house, or babysit your spawn when you are desperate, but on the other hand, I have felt hesitant about talking to my “real” friends who have known me forever, and always seen me as part of a “perfect” couple about Feckless’ shenanigans. Online friends, with that relative degree of anonymity, can be excellent listeners.
I never really believed in that old saw about how it is much easier to talk to strangers than to people you know, but I think it is easier to talk to people who don’t have to know all the extraneous details of my life, who don’t know Feckless, and who can perhaps also bring a degree of objectivity (or a degree of “rah, rah!” if that is what is needed) to the situation.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying – e-pals, I really appreciate your support. SJ, Surely, Lorelei, witch, reggiko, Annan, and yes, even Pescado: I appreciate your friendship. Readers, I appreciate your potential friendship; feel free to say hi.