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July 18, 2009

Internet Friendships

(The following was posted on my Livejournal blog on April 19, 2008, during a late night when I was up all alone in the living room, listening to some good jazz. I think it's still pertinent today, so I'm re-posting it here)

So it's 1:15 in the morning, I'm tired but I'm up anyway, as I'm not sure I'd be able to sleep. Listening to jazz on the radio and everybody's sleeping (well, the wife and cat, anyway, as the rats are being rambunctious). So of course, I'm feeling sentimental. Aren't we all like that if we're up, alone, in the dead of night with nothing on TV?

I've been thinking a lot recently about friendship, especially how the Internet has made it possible to have friends all over the country, and even all over the world. It also helps you keep connected to them if you move away. I look back over the years that I've been online, and I have a varied tapestry of people who have moved in and out of my life. All of them have been special at one time or another, but most of them have dropped by the wayside. I made quite a few friends on IRC when I was on it back in the 90s, but most of them either disappeared or I lost touch with them when I dropped off. I've often wondered where some of them are, especially a couple who were potential girlfriends at the time. I assume their circumstances changed, but did they change for the better?

I had one friend who was involved with somebody online, both of them keeping it a secret from their spouses. They talked a lot, even said that they were in love with each other, but she told me that they would never meet. Neither one of them wanted to, because that would all of a sudden make everything "real" and I assume that meant that they would have to then make decisions on whether to move forward with their relationship (i.e. divorcing their spouses) or ending it for good to stay with their spouses. I always thought it was a relationship that was teetering on the brink of something, and that both of them were deluding themselves a bit. I lost touch with her, however, so I have no idea how that turned out. That's one of them that I truly do wish I knew what happened, but I guess I never will. Hell, I don't think we ever even shared our last names, even though we did talk on the phone a bit. So I couldn't even look her up if I was curious.

Online friendships can be very easy, or they can be very hard. Of course, it depends on where and how you meet them. If you meet on a site where you're already sharing your name (such as many people do on Epinions), then you're already one step ahead of the game. But what if you met semi-anonymously? Like in a chat room, or somewhere where names aren't necessarily shared? You find the person interesting to talk to, maybe in a group setting or just one on one. You share some things about yourself, but you always are a little careful, as you never know what people are like for real at first. Will this person be a stalker? Identity thief? You guard carefully what you reveal at first, trying never to reveal something that will allow you to be tracked down if the other person does turn out to be a psycho.

But as you talk, you slowly begin to trust (assuming the other person actually is trustworthy, of course). You reveal a little more about yourself. They reveal a little more about themselves. Everything seems to check out. Depending on how often you talk, this process can take a few days or weeks. If you're interacting on a site like Epinions or something else where there's a community, this process may be abbreviated as everybody is fairly open about themselves, at least to an extent. What you contribute to the site can be included in what that person knows about you.

In this age of identity theft and Internet stalkers and such, one of the biggest pieces of information revealed, that shows that you now trust this person, is your last name. With that last name, it's a lot easier to track you down if somebody really wanted to. When you reveal that, it shows that you believe that the person is overall a good person and that you have faith they won't do that to you. Of course, revealing other things, such as specifics about your employment (rather than just "I work at a university in Education") can be equally trusting, but it starts with the name.

In a way, it is so much easier to meet people online than it is in person, especially if you're shy and introverted like I was (and still am, to an extent). It's not always healthy, but the friends you do make can be very special. Whether you meet them in a chat room, web forum, or whatever, you discover the shared interests that bring you together, and hopefully as you get to know them, you'll like the rest of what you know about them too. Chat rooms and such can be harder for that, however, since often you won't know if you have any common interests until you actually talk to them. Sometimes, that initial meeting can be quite awkward, but hopefully you can get through it. But sometimes you strike gold, and it's even sweeter for that.

I have a lot of friends online, in a variety of places. From Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, Texas to Washington, and even back home in Iowa. Hardly any are that close, where I can just call them up and chat (though an email's always welcome, I'm sure). I've met a few at the one Epinions Meet & Greet I went to in Seattle, but otherwise I've never met any of them in person, nor spoken to them other than online. With only one exception, I don't interact with any of them every day, and most not even regularly, but I know they're only an email away if I really needed them. Four of them even served as beta readers for the one short story that I've sent out to magazines (all of which soundly rejected it, but such is life and at least my readers said it was good).

So to all of my friends out there, close or just mere acquaintances, know that I value you and what you have brought to my life. Whether you are ones from home where the Internet lets me keep in touch with you, or if I met you online, you are all special in some way. The close ones, and you know who you are, I love you dearly and you'll always have a special place in my heart. And even those not so close bring something good to the table, add some bright light to my life and I thank you for that. Maybe it's just the occasional funny review. Maybe it's just some fun interaction on whichever site I know you from. Maybe you want to be the beta reader for my next story, whenever that happens (give me a few years :)).

Whatever it is, you're all good people. You like me, so that shows you have taste. :P

With that, it's now 2:15, and it's time for bed. I think the later it gets, the more sentimental I get. And I'd better not get asked on Monday "what's your excuse for the daylight hours?" :) But these are just the thoughts that run through my head in the dead of night, and I wanted to get them down.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for being there.


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