[Written by Emma Harrison]
[Image Credit: pexels.com//Min An]
The power that the internet has to bring people together—from interactions on Twitter to forum communities—is often portrayed as part of a negative narrative; its inherent accessibility and anonymity can be used to hurt or isolate people. While these are very important discussions, it is worth remembering that these same characteristics can also create positive connections, such as friendship.
I discovered this as a teenager struggling to find any people or groups who shared my interest in creative writing, partly due to living in a rural area. At a friend’s suggestion, I decided to try a few websites that allowed users to publish their writing and receive feedback. I started exchanging chapters with two other girls of the same age. Not only did they prove to be great critique partners, but they ultimately became two of my closest friends.
Of course, many of these friendships remain ‘virtual’ and never lead to meeting in real life. This is no less valid, and somewhat inevitable if you are continents apart. The fact that ‘online’ and ‘real’ friends are seen as mutually exclusive actually makes little sense, as online friends can often become a central social group or support system. This was the case with one of my family members, who was suffering from a serious illness a few years ago. During this time, she made contact with several other women online that were experiencing the same condition and who went on to support each other through their recovery, despite never actually meeting in real life. Other support systems can be found on websites like Tumblr—which has a strong LGBTQ+community—which provide a safe space for teens and adults who may feel utterly isolated in their day-to-day lives. Sometimes, the only people that can truly understand what you are experiencing and feeling happen to live far away from you, and the internet allows us to transcend this barrier.
Oddly enough, communicating through a keyboard can feel more personal than face-to-face conversation. It’s far easier to open up to someone, stranger or friend, from the safety of your computer, where you can be yourself without fear of pre-judgement. Because of this, the friendships that are formed online can often quickly become as strong as ones formed over years offscreen, despite having little knowledge of what that person looks or sounds like.
If the possibility arises, spending offline time with online friends will greatly affect the relationship. In person, people can be enormously different from how they convey themselves over the internet (leading to many a disastrous Tinder date). In some cases, friendships may even work better online than they do in real life. Fortunately, I think it is more often the case that meeting offscreen solidifies an online friendship. Meeting my ‘pen-pals,’ while slightly nerve-wracking at the time, turned out to be as easy and natural as it was chatting online, and we now see each other as frequently as some of my ‘offscreen’ friends. Partly due to being the same age, we have had very similar experiences, despite being geographically far apart.
Being able to work past the obstacle of distance is a miracle made possible by technology. I count my online-turned-offline friends as some of my closest friendships, and at the time we began talking I probably had more in common with them than most people in my actual social circle. Yet, I probably would never have even come across them without a chance interaction on the internet. In fact, considering that one lives in the Caribbean, it’s possible that we never would have even been on the same continent! Despite this, we’ve managed to maintain a friendship for over eight years (with lots of fun holidays) and still have just as much in common as when we first began speaking.
In 2019, this shouldn’t be a concept that is considered unusual—or even worse—a sign of failing to make meaningful friendships offscreen. Online dating is becoming more and more normalised, and we should view online communities and friendships in the same way; after all, as more and more of our lives are spent online, this hardly seems illogical. While it is very important to be cautious about the information that we share online, and the dangers of blindly trusting strangers, acting responsibly allows us to fully appreciate what the internet has to offer. We have the opportunity to create positive and fulfilling links with like-minded people all over the world, which may even lead to lifelong friendships. Personally, I find that prospect worth the price of a little open-mindedness.