One of the things I remember hearing upon getting my first computer all to myself was this chirping, worried chorus, echoed from every direction: “Don’t talk to strangers.” My parents, my school, any adult figures in my life who had only my best interest at heart told me the same thing. They were right, in many ways. It’s true that children and teenagers on the internet — hell, anyone, really, but especially them — are vulnerable to predators and scams. People have been robbed, hurt, even killed from talking to the wrong people online. It was only right for us to be warned not to stray too far away from our AIM buddy list at the tender age of 12 and a half.
But I have found, as I’ve grown and expanded my internet presence to include a healthy mix of people I know in real life and people I’ve only met through online communication, that some of my best friends and even significant others have been people I’ve met on the internet. People that are geographically impossible to see on a regular basis (or even meet in person, occasionally) have proven to be wonderful friends who are there for me, even across time zones and in spite of never having hugged in person, when I need it most. Occasionally the convenience of real-life friends you see almost every day can numb the closeness you have; you can take one another for granted or not be as loving as you should. But despite the effort it takes to maintain a long-distance relationship, these “online” friends have never resented the lack of convenience.
On the eve of Thanksgiving (my second in a foreign country), I was feeling pretty down over not having my family and friends from home around me on such a significant holiday. Though I would later speak to my parents that evening, I initially spent an hour or so on Gchat talking about loneliness and being far away from people you love with a friend who made me feel, even for a minute, a little less alone. And I’ve never met this girl in real life. There are people who would tell me that she is not a “real” friend because we have never solidified it with an essential in-person meeting, or because we did not grow organically through the sometimes-forced intimacy of daily exposure.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Whether or not an “internet” friend has the chance to spread their wings in your day-to-day life, their importance in feeling connected to other human beings is not something that can be arbitrarily determined by how physically close they are to you. Because connection is comprised of so much more than shared activities or touch. Yes, it can absolutely reinforce relationships to do things together in person, but there are so many people with whom we share endless interaction in our daily lives whom we never really understand. There is no one kind of relationship that is inherently “better” or “more real” than another; it depends entirely on how you make each other feel.
There is a certain kind of honesty that we allow ourselves, too, when we neither see this person every day nor share with them a common history. We come together without the baggage and appearance that follows us around in almost every other encounter, we can be the unfiltered versions of ourselves we often only allow when we are not in overtly social situations. We can be quiet and independent and still talkative, still sharing, still open completely with someone else. This does not mean that your online friends automatically know you better than anyone else, only that so much of the pressure that can initially accompany friendship is absent.
Everything is voluntary. Everything is a step you make in their direction, something you actively choose to do because you want to be around them, to get to know them. Maybe there is a certain false perfection to these relationships because you are sometimes never able to ruin them with the inevitable flaws of proximity and face-to-face interaction. But there is an oasis in the people we only know from behind the screen, a feeling of relief that you can finally be exactly who you are and there are still people who will seek you out and enjoy your company. So many of us feel so isolated in daily life, until we can go online and find a group of kindred spirits who tell us over and over, in so many words, that we are not alone and never have to feel that way again.
Few things break my heart more than hearing that these friends aren’t “real.” Are our conversations, the ones that last hours and cover topics I’ve never talked about openly with someone before, not real? Are the secrets we keep for each other not real? Are the jokes we create between us only a figment of our collective imagination? No, of course not. We are real, as much as any other friends are. And yes, at one point, they were just “strangers on the internet,” but everyone starts as a stranger. Only the very special ones will ever be called “friend.”