Even in an age where most of our lives are conducted online in one way or another, there’s still a fairly heavy stigma attached to online friendships; we even find it necessary to distinguish between “Internet friends” and “real friends.” Why are we still so unwilling to accept that the fairly arbitrary line we’ve set up to differentiate is fuzzier than it seems?
People argue, “You never really know someone when you meet them online.” Well, folks, I’ve met a lot of people face-to-face who turned out not to be at all what they presented themselves as. I’d say that you’re no more guaranteed to get a sense of someone’s true character in person than you are online. Sure, there’s always a chance of a Catfish situation, but lots of people have been taken in by real-life con artists, killers, and general scumbags who “seemed like such nice people” at the time. What we choose to present of ourselves is entirely under our control, whether that’s online or face-to-face.
What’s amazing about the Internet, among other things, is that you have the opportunity to really find your niche. I grew up in a fairly small town, so being a sci-fi and comics nerd who loved makeup, ’80s and ’90s pop music, fancy cake, and sushi pretty much made me a peer group of one. Having exposure to an entire world’s worth of people, though, allowed me to seek out and interact with people who shared my interests, people I never would have encountered otherwise. Not to mention that there’s a certain level of introversion that many people who spend a lot of their time online share, and being an introvert on that level often limits your in-person social activity.
The group of people I consider to be my closest friends and I all met on a message board for former users of another website. It was the first time I’d really let myself be less than completely anonymous online. At 34, I’m old enough to remember a whole lot of my life before the Internet, and I’d been indoctrinated with a fairly hefty dose of “maintain anonymity at all costs.” Little by little, I started to let that go. Soon, I was interacting with the people who I got along with in a variety of other settings: email, Tumblr, Gchat, text message, Facebook, you name it. We’ve been through marriages, career crises, family drama, health problems, pregnancies, dating woes, culinary adventures, fashion emergencies, and every other piece of daily life that you can imagine. We’ve been on vacation together. We meet up when one of us is traveling near any of the others. These are the people I turn to first when I need advice or a shoulder to cry on. And I’m supposed to consider them not to be “real” friends because we didn’t meet in high school or at a bar or through work? No thanks. These people are my friends, not my “friends.”
Last June, the P-Mag editors had a weekend retreat. Most of us had worked together for a year or two or more at that point. Several of the editors are actually college friends. Did that make those of us who weren’t any less a part of the group? No way. That was an amazing weekend, and being able to physically interact with these people who I already knew so well, who I talk to every single day, and who know almost all there is to know about me, well, that was just an extra level of friendship, not the singular and necessary one. Just because I can’t call Selena to meet me for drinks in an hour doesn’t mean she’s not one of my closest friends; we just came about it in a slightly less traditional way.
So why is the conventional, meeting-in-person method of making friends still considered to be the only right way to do it, while meeting people online is widely regarded as weird or dangerous or suspicious? Why is online dating generally regarded as no longer a big deal, but online friendships are something we still feel the need to lie about? Making friends as an adult is hard. Why automatically discount one of the best ways to meet people who you share interests with and who you genuinely enjoy talking to? I think we’ve moved past the point where all online activity should be viewed with suspicion and derision. I think Facebook is largely responsible for removing anonymity from social media; whether or not that’s a good thing or has gone too far is a discussion for another time. But, for the most part, we know each others’ names, we know our jobs and our lives and what we like to eat and what our favorite TV shows are.
Why should I view my interactions with people on my friends list who I happened to attend high school with almost two decades ago as more “real” relationships than the ones I have with people who I talk to every day? People who know my life as it is, not as it was or as I want others to think it is; these are my friends. And I’m tired of trying to hide the fact that we met via a keyboard and monitor rather than through an equally artificially constructed set of social factors: work, school, book clubs, what have you. I’m tired of feeling like I have to differentiate between my friends based on how we met. The value of my friendships can be found in what we mean to each other, how we talk, what we give back and forth, not where or how we met or the fact that such a large chunk of society feels like we’re oddballs for being “online friends.” These days, the Internet is our workplace, our bar, our social club, and our library. It’s where we spend our time, where we learn things, and how we entertain ourselves. Why shouldn’t it be where we make friends, too?