Saturday, July 31, 2010

Online Friendships: Real Connections or Digital Farce?

For well over a decade now, the internet has provided many services. Starting as the largest database of every possible topic of inquiry imagined, the internet helped students research papers and professionals find answers to various questions. Now, the internet has evolved to completing daily tasks like shopping and paying bills, viewing and downloading media, and catching up on news all over the world. Nowadays, however, its purpose has superseded what may have been its original vision as the information super highway. It has become the largest source of interpersonal exchanges between friends, families, co-workers, business prospects, romantic prospects, and other random meetings throughout our daily internet activities. Surpassing the telephone and what is popularly coined now as Snail Mail, email, social networking sites, and messengers help to keep us connected.

Now for one who admittedly rarely gets out, a perpetual homebody, the internet has become my extension to much of the outside world. As local, real-life friendships from school and old jobs run dry, despite promises of gatherings and phone calls, I find myself making more friends online, friends who, oddly, seem more reliable than those I see face to face. Which brings me to this question: Can real friendships and relationships be forged through the electrical fog of the internet?

However, to answer this question, one must define friendship. Unfortunately such a term is subjective to each and every one of us. To some, friendship is the person who knows everything about you, the one you can tell anything to, someone you see nearly every day and keep in constant contact with. To others, friendship is simply knowing that the parties of the relationship are there when you need them, despite limited exchanges and minimal contact. They may not know everything about you and you may only speak a few times a year, but you know that when you need to talk, they'll pick up the phone. And for some, like my nephew, friendship simply means any individual who is not an enemy: 'if you're not cruel and give me no reason to dislike you, then we're friends'.

For me, to varying degrees all of these apply, and all of them are manifested in my internet connections, save one important detail: most of us have never met face to face. I have friends I've met on message boards of mutual interests, friends I've met through QR's YouTube project, and friends I've met through social networking sites. Some I've known for nearly 8 years, some I would call my best friends, without hesitation, one even flew from Spain and stayed at my house with me while on vacation. But when I tell people my friends are on the internet, most scoff or give a politely awkward "oh, that's cool". The common sentiment of the internet is that it's not real, and most people treat it as such.

It's duly noted that people do not act on the internet as they do in real life. Some are ruder, more outspoken, more flirtatious, more of whatever they're not in their daily lives. Some people create an entirely new persona online, believing there are no actual consequences, like the internet is some far-removed fantasy land where you can be whatever you want and at the end of the day, shut it down and delete any trace of your existence if you wish to. In maintaining such a mentality, more people feel less connected to the individuals on the other side of the wire, forgetting there are real people sitting in front of the other computer, and social niceties are no longer required. People make superficial friendships and following the smallest infarction, at the click of the mouse can remove that individual from their lives. And, given a few days to refresh, will re-add that friend back into their lives until the next minor faux pas.

Had we a button to delete every annoying individual from our real daily lives, I imagine hardly any effort would be made at all to construct relationships or friendships, to learn tolerance and patience with one another, to learn to coexist as we must on this rock. So why do we engage in the simplicity of deleting real individuals in a virtual world like we're killing off one of our Sims characters? Perhaps this attitude of the internet is why some people refuse to emotionally invest in online friendships and relationships with each other. Perhaps they're concerned about making connections with a fantasy land of characters where no one is what they seem, or in a land where nothing seems tangible because these "friends" live half a world away where you'll never see them face to face.

I invest. I care about the people I connect with online, albeit sometimes too easily, sometimes the relationships mean more to me than to the other person, and they walk away without much consideration for anything else, but isn't that life? I mean granted I do believe most people give up on internet relations a lot faster than real-life ones because as I said, all it takes is turning off your computer, rather than shutting out a neighbor or a co-worker you face every day. However, there are people in our real lives who never return phone calls, who never reply to letters, who make plans and break them, or give hollowed promises and let them collapse. So why can't we care and connect from behind our keyboards?

I can't vouch for every negative experience anyone else has had with one idiotic ruse or another, I can only vouch for the valuable friends I've made, in spite of the callous cowardly posters that pop up everywhere else. I can vouch for the friends who send me gifts and cards, or the friends that saw me through the hardest time of my life; the friends that listen to me bitch and complain about whatever drama is going down, the friends that support and encourage me in whatever I'm doing; the friends who never judged me for what I am, or what I've been. I vouch for the friend who was willing to send me money when times were tough, even though she hadn't enough for herself, and I vouch for the friends that I know will continue to be there for me, even though none of us, save one, have ever met, and even though most of us never will. Some of us talk every day, even if they're small messages on Facebook or message boards. Some of us only talk once a month or less. But we're still friends. From Kentucky to Florida, from New England to the old one, from Ireland to Spain, from Morocco to Jordan, I'm quite fortunate in my international bounty of friends.

Thanks guys.


Lyn said...

You know that I love you and appreciate you more than you will ever know! I am so thankful we have had the opportunity to become friends over the years and when we finally do meet (oh yes, and we will) I feel sorry for mankind...LOL

Dee said...

Jaebug I'm honored to be one of those friends. I hope we do get to meet some day. Even if we don't I feel closer to you than some people I've know 10 times as long. Online relationships are what you make of them. If you and the other person are willing to be honest and show who you truly are it will be a rewarding experience 9 times out of 10. I've been online since 1995 and have had the good FAR outweigh the bad. Even had a marriage out of it (baaaad) and a few wonderful loves out of it. Am now living with the love of my live who I met via a chat site online, 1/2 a world away. :) But you know that long story.

Love you dear heart!