Cyber Communities: A Frontier for Friendship

Let’s do a quick round of two truths and a lie: A.) a very good friend and confidant of mine lives in Chicago; B.) we have never met face-to-face in person; C.) she is a figment of my imagination. If all things I know about myself and my surrounding reality are true, the lie here is option C.

As most people get to know me, an interesting fact about myself comes to light — I have quite a few friends I cherish with all my heart, and have also never met in real life. How is this possible? I committed the ultimate no-no of a 90s kid. I spoke to strangers on the Internet.

The Internet as an international forum began picking up speed in the late 90s and early 2000s with features like chatrooms and websites like LiveJournal and Xanga that encouraged community and the cultivation of relationships between faceless users and wacky usernames. This, of course, became prime breeding ground for scum of the Earth who saw an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and become online predators that sparked fear in our parents’ hearts, and with good reason.

Growing up in the era of nationwide amber alert cases, “To Catch a Predator” and marathon “Catfish” weekends is certainly evidence enough to steer clear from starting any sort of conversation with people you don’t know online. But I have to say, when I began navigating this world with the right amount of common sense and caution, it developed into one of the most personally rewarding aspects of my social life.

I made accounts for social media sites as they gained popularity, but I kept my accounts tightly sealed to friends only until Tumblr. I joined Tumblr when I was about 15 years old, when it was brand spankin’ new and a great noncommittal way to blog.

Because Tumblr was a far more open community with less security restriction and privacy options than most social media sites, I began to bond with other users over our mutual loves for things like editorial fashion, “The Lord of the Rings” and Interpol.

I found people from all over the world who loved all the things that I loved, which sometimes wasn’t the case with my real-life friends. It was so nice to be able to chat about fashion photographers and favorite actors without needing to preface with prior info or be met with a blank stare and an “I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”

Six years into this community and I have accrued a circle of up to 30 online friends that I interact with on a near daily basis via social media sites, texting and Skype. Our relationships have grown into something far beyond sharing common interests, but confidants who know each other’s’ goals, fears, dreams, have celebrated milestones with one another and continue to provide support and advice as we go through life.

Quite frankly, my relationships with these lovely people are probably what early Internet advocates dreamt of when it started to take off. I have friends located all around the U.S., including New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, California, Washington, Kentucky, Hawaii, Michigan and Idaho, along with international friends situated in places like New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Canada, Scotland and England. Each of them is so unique in personality, so beautiful in spirit and has provided me with more than I could have ever imagined in terms of support and companionship despite getting to know them under this unorthodox context.

We talk about anything from makeup recommendations, funny celebrity photos, movies, the consistencies of our stool, religion and spirituality, the vulnerabilities in our family lives, fear of death and all of life’s uncertainties.

I’ve had the great fortune of meeting a good amount of them in real life and although there’s always the initial fear of awkwardness or the possibility that they may not be who they are online, each time has been as pleasant as you could possibly hope.

Because you have this great context behind that person already, finally meeting in real life is like slipping into the perfect pair of jeans — effortless and heart-warming, with a sense that you had been destined to be paired together from the start.

For example, I met Deborah when I was 16 on Tumblr, and we remained Internet friends until we finally met in real life when we both studied abroad in Glasgow together five years after meeting online. My six months spent with her was indescribable and she forever holds a special part of my heart.

There are caveats in having online friendships, however. There are people that I no longer speak to because communication fell through and there is no other way to reach out to them. I wonder often about how the state of my online friendships will be when we all grow up and eventually begin to phase out of social media.

There’s also the uncertainty of when you’ll meet your online friends again, if ever, in person, along with how others around you question the legitimacy of such relationships or try to discredit the investments you have in your online friends simply because you have not met them in person.

But quite honestly, these are all problems that plague real-life friendships as well — questions of maintaining connections past certain phases of your life, how much to invest emotionally and how vulnerable you choose to make yourself.

Internet friendships get a bit of a bad rap — people have questioned my ability to connect with others in my real life surroundings and have even visibly turned their noses up at my mentions of my online friends. But in this world I have found people I would have never met otherwise and enriched my own life in ways I never thought imaginable, and that’s more precious to me than a scoff of disbelief or questions of authenticity.