I've tried to write this post for days, but I just can't make it come out right. Here goes...
Though I have been an active user of the Internet since sometime before 1996, and have read blogs since at least 2003, I never did the chatroom thing, and I only jumped into commenting in the blog world about one year ago. I think my introduction to it coincided with my discovery of Anysoldier.com, as I began looking for information that would help me understand the experiences and needs of the personnel I was "supporting." So naturally, it was the milblogs I gravitated to, and it was milbloggers with whom I first made personal contacts. And it was among the milbloggers that I found people I would like to consider my friends. I enjoy and value their company, and a couple of them have had a profound effect on my intellectual and/or emotional life. I've met one of them in person and spoken to three others on the phone. But are they really my friends?
Merriam Webster OnLine says:
Main Entry: friend
Etymology: Middle English frend, from Old English freond; akin to Old High German friunt friend, Old English freon to love, freo free
1 a : one attached to another by affection or esteem
4 : a favored companion
What parameters signify a relationship among more than acquaintances? Which leads to the question, can people who only interact via online text be considered truly friends? Can you honestly know a person when you've never seen the body language, heard inflections of voice, or seen how they treat others? Does the distance of electronic text give people the confidence to be themselves, or does it allow them space enough to construct a facade?
This is not a new topic in the blogosphere. ALa wrote, a number of months ago:
Am I who I present here? (I think I am) Are you? Are we friends even though we have never met? Can we be friends if we've never met? Many of you I speak with more than people in my 'real' life...so what's 'real'? [...] And what about when this world crosses over...on the phone, on IM or over dinner...or a Blogger's Ball? Does it become 'real' then or was it 'real' all along?
Barb thinks she knows the answer...
First of all, friends are friends - whether we met first through the internet or in person matters not. Secondly, I think that not only can we form true friendships without meeting one another, it may lead to a purer form of friendship.
We didn't form these friendships because we happened to work together, live next to one another, etc. [...] As long as we have been honest, then the bonds between us are not based on age or physical parameters, or on other accidents of location. Instead the bonds are based on how we think - and that is a better, stronger bond to me.
I am a naturally intuitive person; intuition is my preferred way of operating in the world. Interacting via bytes and pixels short-circuits a lot of that. So, I'm not going to rush into believing a couple of long chat sessions make for an emotionally-intimate relationship and demonstrate a person's trustworthiness (or lack thereof).
But over time, I think one can see a lot of a person's character through their comments around the 'sphere, their postings, how they deal with conflicts that may develop, etc. As in any extended interaction, character will "out." That's certainly been my experience (both positive and negative).
I had noticed my first "online-friend-to-be" around the blogosphere for quite awhile before he made a particularly beautiful comment on a deployed soldier's blog. I emailed him without introduction and asked if I could "steal" his quote and send it to the deployed guys I was writing to. He turned out to be a combat veteran himself. That started a long conversation about military psychology, combat, the social contract between soldier and civilian, etc. Much to my shock and embarrassment, he seemed to think I was worth corresponding with on these subjects. After several months, it branched into more general discussions of psychology and sociology, along with a bit of teasing and friendly banter.
But it was still a very intellectual and impersonal interaction. Then one day he sensed something was wrong. It was. He did not push, but offered himself as a brother to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, and a coach for the future. He said I had been supporting his brother warfighters and now it was time for him to support me. I was shocked. But he meant what he said. He waded in, offered me his arm, and dragged me back out of the mess.
I know today I could trust this friend with my very life. Does it matter that though we speak on the phone and know what each other looks like we've never met face-to-face? Is it less real? Is what I've learned from him any less a part of my daily life?
He's just an example of several fine people I've gotten to know online, to varying depths. Yes, I've met my share of people online I wouldn't trust further than I can throw them. It's been interesting that most of those people I had a bad feeling about from day one, but had managed to talk myself out of it (which I lived to regret).
Another online correspondent wrote the following to me when I took a chance and shared some (at that time) recent re-evaluations of my life:
The world has shrunken, it has been cramped into a crowded city street. We "meet" people, and come to know them in virtual space, but are now nearly assured that we will never meet in life. We can take chances, we can open ourselves. We can suspend fear, offer hope. We can share, we can become (almost) intimate. Perhaps in some respects more truly intimate than in the "real" world. Here there are no warts, here we are all beautiful.
I think maybe the anonymity of the Internet may encourage people to be more "open" online than they would be in person. But if we are smart and cautious about our interactions, real friendships can develop. We may even discover our online correspondents have warts!
I think I've found some "real" friends online (warts and all, haha!). Recently, for the first time in my life, I was able to move and take my friends with me; our interactions are no less than they were before I moved. It's been a joy to still have my online community, even out here in the boonies.
And as I look back on what is nearing a year's worth of online interactions, I feel incredibly blessed to count some members of the online community among my friends--people I am attached to "by affection or esteem," people who are among my "favored companion[s]." I've met people who by their very background or career (or simply their extraordinary intelligence) would never have crossed my path were it not for blogs. And from them I've learned a bit about what it's like to serve your country in wartime, a bit more about myself and my values and chosen role in this world, how the human spirit can maintain sanity in the most insane circumstances, a bit more about this wonderful country I live in, and that I'm not the only marginally-sane, never-married 30-something woman around.
W, you were my lifeline and my pivot point. I am deeply honored to have been welcomed into the brotherhood; T, your intuitive gentleness touches me and your courage inspires me (no, no pity there); CLL, I've learned so much from reading and conversing with you--about living the life I want, about what I have to offer, and about things I had never fully appreciated; K, we'll just be two spinsters, growing old together; And J, one of these days I'll figure out how to talk to you without driving you up the wall! ;) And how could I forget to include S?--for shared laughter is one of the greatest joys of friendship.
And if you don't recognize yourself above, know that if you have helped untangle my blog, listened to me rant and rave (and cry), or opened the door to a world I didn't see before, I count you as real (or more so) a friend as any other.
I am constantly amazed at the diversity of experience, skill, knowledge, and background that I've found online. But the consistent thread is people of great intelligence and courage who have deigned to give me a peek into their lives... and sometimes even their hearts. I count it all a humbling privilege.
UPDATE: An interesting discussion on friendship and levels of intimacy is developing in the comments.