Making Friends on the Internet
It's trendy these days for older audiences to lament the lost social lives of the upcoming generations Y and Z, of digital natives' apparent inability to relate like "normal people" in face-to-face encounters. It's like the mere ability to send instantaneous messages were the deepest evil in Pandora's box, and now that the technology exists, the best we can do is manage the descent of our naturally sociable children into a lifetime of stunted, abnormal social interaction.
My own story went in quite the opposite direction. I did not have an active social life as a child, between turbulent familial relationships and the paralyzing social anxiety that has persisted (much more manageably, now) into adulthood.
I was much happier playing Gameboy on the couch on my weekends than enduring hours in a corner at a party that a parent invited me to out of propriety, while the kid made sure I knew I wasn't welcome. I didn't have more than one close friend at a time until college, and they were just as into spending hours in a dark room playing computer games as I was.
That's not to say I was a quiet child. In the right company I would never stop talking, debating, and playing with semantics - my mom could not get me and my brother to quit our playful verbal sparring over dinner.
It was more that I felt very acutely whether someone appreciated my word vomit, or more often, when they powerfully and visibly disliked it - and it made me wary of speaking to anybody that hadn't established that they cared to speak to me.
Of the nightly hours I spent on the computer ages 10-18, about a quarter of that time was spent playing games and browsing the Internet (Neopets was my jam). The other 75% was dedicated to talking, and talking, and talking some more, with the friends I had found online.
We found each other in multiplayer maps of my favorite strategy game, in anime forums, in virtual pet communities, spaces where our shared interests allowed us to comfortably move into conversations about our real lives.
We would call each other by our usernames first, and seek out familiar faces (avatars) for the next round of games. But we saw the same folks in the same places often enough that eventually we established groups on a first-name basis, and returned to our chat rooms each night to update each other on how our day had been.
It became a great comfort to me that I could log in after a fight with my mom, and find my friends were all already online, ready to hear me and send hugs from a distance. Some of us switched to keeping long-term contact on MSN messenger, and continued to chat regularly for years.
One such friendship with a fellow monikered "Lehki," who lived in New York while I resided in New Orleans, rose above the rest. It was as important and intimate a friendship to me as my other lifelong best friend, who I met at middle school around the same time.
It started with his response to a thread I started about Star Wars, moved to private messages as we discovered all of the games we both played, and soon became all-night IM conversations, as comfortable to us as a mom's four-hour phone calls with her wine buddy. Neither of us had the funds nor the independence to visit each other, so we made jokes about crashing a jet into the other’s roof some day.
Lehki and I – real name John, but he’ll always be Lehki to me - spoke (via MSN) every single night for hours. Sometimes we would hop on the phone, but we both felt better elucidating our thoughts in text, when we had time to think about our responses and the flexibility of having multiple asynchronous conversations.
I told my friends at school about our adventures across the web – he was always willing to try a new website or game with me - and when they came over we’d all sit and chat with him. I liked to tell them that he knew more about me than my diary did - he was an incredible listener - and if it weren't for his constant shoulder and his even counsel, I might literally have not survived my adolescence.
As I stumbled awkwardly through high school, Lehki and I mailed birthday gifts to each other and swapped books. We had been friends for six years when I met his younger brother for ice cream in New York during my college tours – he was working that day and couldn’t come.
It wasn’t until my third year of college, 10 years into our friendship, that I could afford to travel, and I met him and his brother at a piano bar in Times Square, where my awkward nerd friends and I looked thoroughly out of place.
It was as though we had always known each other in person, but when we split ways at the end of the trip, we felt just as fine returning to our messaging routine. We didn’t need the physical proximity to feel that the other cared – they were simply there on the other end of the line, no matter what.
My Digital Friends Are Just As Real
You don’t need to hear someone’s voice to hear their voice. Everyone knows that writing has a “tone,” a persona that leaks out of the person writing it whether they try to control it or not. But we seem to disregard that concept when we think about text messages; we shrug off the idea that emoji could actually represent the emotions they were made to represent.
We assume that anyone hiding their face behind a screen has ill intentions, that they reach their tentacles out from the dark web to steal credit cards and harass children. It’s true that one must use caution when sharing personal information - but it’s no less true of real life strangers than it is of online ones.
I’m overjoyed to see more people acknowledging text speak and Internet slang as dialects, just a set of linguistic shortcuts to communicate information with more speed and familiarity between people who both understand it. But what I’d really love to see is respect for friendships that occur primarily online.
It’s not for everyone, just like you may not take to the Internet dialects as readily as another. It may take longer for the bond to develop because of the lack of visual feedback.
But it may also be more accessible for a great many people, especially the physically disabled and others who suffer from social anxiety, and sans the pressure of the expensive regular travelling required to keep up long-distance physical relationships – not because it’s “easier,” but because it’s no less meaningful than a beloved pen pal across the ocean. There should not be physical or economic barriers to love, and there is no love less “worthy” than another simply because it’s performed in text.
I now have a wonderful circle of “IRL” friends, some more nerdy and reclusive than others, and we all manage to get out of the house once in a while. Still, I always get excited when I return to my desktop after work and check the new posts in the forum, messages in a bottle from kindred souls across the planet. And I feel the same slew of emotions when Lehki says he won’t be responding to texts because he’s going to sleep as I do when I shut the apartment door behind my departing friends.
I miss you when you’re gone; I miss you when you’re AFK (away from keyboard). I miss my friends when they’re not there, whether there is here, or way over there. The love is always the same.