Recently I was pondering how much the internet brings to our lives. We have endless information at our fingertips and can access it from our desks, our cars, even from the middle of the wilderness. The information itself is great, but what brings more to my life is the people. My life has been completely transformed by the sharing, the caring, and the fantastic support that I get…and give…as I interact with people all over the world.
In a typical week I might exchange emails with a dozen customers about their projects. I might commiserate with my friend Lynda about the frustrations of dealing with Etsy and being a self-supporting polymer clay artist. I usually share jokes (and commentary) with Facebook friends most days. And I constantly encounter new people, too. Some who I know for just a few comments, and some who become a permanent fixture in my world. I truly do cherish each conversation, and I never forget that at the other end of the email or chat or comment is a real person with hopes and dreams and frustrations remarkably similar to my own.
And I wasn’t kidding when I said that my life has been transformed by online friendships. Read on to see what I mean!
My Experience with Online Friendships
Way back in 2002, I met my very best friend online. I lived in Chicago and was in the process of moving to Missouri. I mentioned this in a thread at Polymer Clay Central. A woman there put me in touch with “olrebbie” from Springfield, Missouri. It took about a year but we finally met up in real life and Rebbie and I have been fast and close friends ever since.
Then in 2006 I started taking photography seriously and posted my photos on Flickr. I joined a group called 365Days, whose participants shared a self-portrait each and every day for a year. That led to meeting hundreds of other people who were also participating in that project. It was a life changing experience for me, on many levels, and I learned so very much about humanity. Because we each shared a daily picture of ourselves, we participated in each others’ lives and hopes and dreams and struggles. We carried those people with us into our “real” lives. My family began to hear me speak of new people as if I knew them in person (because you realize, to me…I did). They put up with me taking random pictures to share with people they’d never heard of. And then they started to hear me talk…a lot…about a wonderful man in England named Gary. You see, sometimes these people who shared their lives online actually fell in love.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear you now. Internet long distance trans-Atlantic relationships never work out. And I assure you…I was thinking the same thing. But sometimes magic happens and it works out. Our online friendship blossomed and just four months after adding him as a friend on Flickr, Gary flew here to meet me for the very first time. By that point we already knew we wanted to get married and would have done it on the spot, that day even, but we had to wait for him to tie up his life in the UK and get the immigration process moving. It was intense, it was crazy, it was really, really hard. We spent hours on the phone each day, shared tons of pictures, and exchanged thousands upon thousands of emails. Finally, eighteen months later, Gary moved here for good and we were married. And we’ve never regretted it for a minute.
And there have been more real-life Flickr Meets. When I went to visit Gary in the UK, we met up with our online friend Jacqi for a wonderful afternoon of rapid-fire conversation. Later, in Durham, Gary and I met another couple of friends, Cath and Jon, for a walk around the town and nice visit to Durham Cathedral. (Cath and Jon met on Flickr just like Gary and I.) And then, a couple of years later, here in the US, our friend Jim from Omaha was shooting a wedding near here and took an alternate route through our town just so we could meet for breakfast and say hi.
When Jacqi and her partner Rik were touring the US on their way to emigrate from the UK to New Zealand, they stopped here in Missouri and stayed on our couch for three days. It was an amazing time. Really, truly. We had so much fun, including one night sitting around drinking White Russians while chatting and sharing pictures on our laptops…online…while we were all sitting in the same room. It was truly hilarious (okay, you had to be there).
Benefits of Online Friendships
We all know that social connections make us healthier. Online connections are no different. Especially for people in isolated areas or those who are housebound, online friendships are truly a godsend. Having a network of friends to connect with, to share with, to support you in the down times and laugh with you in the good times is absolutely essential to human psychological health. Even fairly anonymous friends can still give good advice, validation, and just the feeling that you’re not so alone in this often harsh life.
You might think that online friendships aren’t “real”. But are they any different to the real life ones? In real life, people are often too busy to connect. To be honest, I get most news from my “real” friends online nowadays anyway. Often, I know more about my online friends than I do my “real” friends. And just like real-life friends, online friends need support, too.
I’ve had late night Facebook messages and Flickrmails that would wrench your heart. “I’m pregnant and it’s not expected.” “I left my boyfriend after he hit me.” “We’re getting divorced.” I’ve shared in the joy as people who were in a down time when we met are now living fantastic lives and married in whole new countries. I’ve watched and shared as friends whipped cancer. I’ve seen accounts go ominously silent when cancer won. I’ve seen people fall in love. Babies have been born and I’ve watched with pride, just like a relative, as each new picture is posted as the babies grow into children. Life is a full, rich, beautiful thing, and I feel lucky to have the privilege to join in the stories of so many people.
Social Media Has Increased our Connections
As more people become connected online and as social media use has skyrocketed, we truly are becoming one large community. Threads on Facebook become conversations as collections of friends enter the dialogue. We join online groups and forums where we share common interests or experiences. My experience with the Flickr 365Days group was so fruitful because we all shared a common interest (photography) and a common project. We had common ground. Through this blog and my Facebook page and Etsy I have met so many wonderful people who share an interest in polymer clay, art, and creativity, and their contributions and support truly do brighten my days. The internet allows like-minded people to gather together to share ideas, techniques, successes, and camaraderie. Because the world wide web allows any two people to connect, anywhere, people who share obscure interests with few others are able to find each other and share common ideas.
Because the web truly is world-wide, and because people in developing countries typically have good smartphone access (even better than many areas of the US), people just like us all over the world are connecting and sharing their lives as never before. Remember my Flickr friends? Six years later I am still connected to 37 of them on Facebook. They’re on six continents!
Language is no longer a barrier. Online translators are now so accurate that people converse without having a common language. We have all learned to be more tolerant of people who might not understand the subtleties of our language. The need to share and connect overcomes the frustrations and quirks of Google Translate.
Take a Chance
I think my experience with meeting people online has made it easier to contact strangers and suggest a real-life meeting. Recently I read on the Facebook page of a website I follow, Creativity Tribe, that the owner, Rachél Payne, was on a tour and was stopping in my town that very night. Even though we’d never exchanged so much as an email, I wasted no time in messaging her and suggesting we get together for coffee. And we did! It was really great meeting another blogger and creative person. We had a lovely time chatting about everything under the sun.
If you’re going to be travelling to a new area, take a chance and ask people who live in that area if they want to meet up. At the very least you’ll have a great conversation and at the most you’ll make a new friend for life. If you’re ever coming through Springfield, Missouri, and want to meet me, send me a message and we’ll see if we can coordinate our schedules. I know some great coffee shops!
I realize that online friendships might not be for everyone. There are valid concerns about the privacy of anything transmitted over the internet. And maintaining online friendships takes time. (But then so do real life friendships.) And you have to be wise about things. You need to limit your online activities lest you become “that guy” guzzling energy drinks in his mother’s basement because he can’t stop posting on anime forums. We all do need a balance in life but perhaps having a few online friendships can be a good thing, too.
So the next time the chance comes to make friends online, don’t hesitate! You’re not going to hit it off with everyone (that holds true in real life as well). And you just might meet a new best friend!