In the late 1990s I ran with a loquacious crew on an online bulletin board called Chickclick. Sugaplumskank (Tia, from Northern California) was a joker and a poet, a night owl with a flair for posting hilarious ruminations at 3 a.m. There was also Pixiestarcycle (Sue, from Minneapolis), Shescrafty (Mary, from Miami) and Taylicious (Tay, from Burlington, Vt.). We type-talked about young women's eternal concerns: hotties, music and reproductive politics, plus fashion, food and mostly hotties.
Eventually, we met en route to Sue's family cottage on one of Minnesota's beautiful lakes. The difference between an online relationship and one in person was cemented after Mary and I fed Tia some Vietnamese leftovers (peanut allergies are so abstract in writing). This led to much screaming as her face swelled into a giant balloon as Sue tried to concentrate on steering her dad's SUV on the highway. Eventually, Tia downed a pack of Benadryl and the rest of the weekend was a blast.
Thirteen years later, Mary and I may never get over the guilt. Also, the Internet isn't new any more and neither is our friendship.
Much of the discourse around online interactions focuses on the negative and the dangerous. It's fair enough: Educators and law enforcement are way behind in responding to the challenges of the digital world. But it's unfortunate that the bad stuff overshadows the deep, real ties that can be built between people who first met as avatars and usernames.
Last summer, Tia's mom held my baby; last winter, Tay and I wandered around Montreal as our husbands discussed fat-tire bikes. We've been through cancer and death and breakups together. The strength of my relationships with them is the rope I hold as I dive into other social networks, where I've met collaborators, buddies and confidantes. If you're still skeptical of online friendship, well, you're missing out.
Most online friendships reflect those in our immediate communities: We tend to connect with those who have similarities in age, values and social class, what sociologists call homophily.
For those whose identities are marginalized, or even hated, finding connection online can be life-altering.
Calgary's Kelly Hofer made his first online friends on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Hofer, 22, grew up in the Hutterite colony Green Acres in rural Manitoba. Hutterites, a Christian Anabaptist group, live in communes of 100 people and restrict interaction with those outside their faith. (Across North America, colonies use a private Internet service provider, the Hutterite Brethren Network, in order for colonies to share teachers while filtering sites believed to be "questionable.") Around age 13, he began to share the photos he had taken of his colony. One Winnipeg man was so taken with Hofer's talent that he drove to Green Acres to give the boy a DSLR camera. "I had never allowed myself to befriend someone who wasn't Hutterite," Hofer says of the photographer, who is still close to Hofer and his parents. "It wasn't awkward, but new."
Hofer's life really changed, though, on Twitter, when he was 19. Since his mid-teens, he'd known he didn't want a girlfriend, but he didn't exactly know what the other options were. It's hard to explain, he says, but for Hutterites, nothing really exists until another Hutterite does it. Hofer didn't know any gay Hutterites; therefore, he couldn't be a gay Hutterite. Then, one day while discussing new cellphones with another Hutterite teen on Twitter, the conversation shifted to sexuality.
"There was trust, and a slow advancement of the conversation, saying things that could be taken two ways," he says. The young men came out to each other over Twitter direct messaging and, two weeks later, left their colonies. His sister, who had left a decade earlier, came to get him, and they drove to Saskatchewan to pick up his Twitter friend on the side of a country road. "It was pure serendipity," he says of the online meeting. "Twitter changed a lot in me. It showed me there were others."
Today, Hofer lives in Calgary and runs a closed Facebook group for LGBT Hutterites across North America. It has 18 members, all personally vetted by him, including one 40-year-old in South Dakota who also didn't realize he could be gay until he found the group. "I've created a gay Hutterite community and that's something you can't do in real life at all," he says.
The stakes aren't as high for every Internet friendship, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. When a relationship moves from a public forum, such as Twitter or Instagram, to someplace more private, it signals a corresponding increase in trust.
Journalists Virginia Heffernan and Paul Ford also met online. Though they both live in New York, often write about technology and run in the same social circles, they had never met when Heffernan e-mailed Ford last January to discuss a story. Things got jokey as the two writers volleyed back and forth, e-mailing each other notes crafted as though from annoying editors to harried writers.
In March, Heffernan and Ford published their e-mails on the site Medium. The exchange is very Internet, full of inside jokes that are much funnier read as e-mails than said out loud. One from Ford to Heffernan has the subject line "opinion writer with social media focus" (that is, a description of her); the body asks for help finding "basically a younger version of you but with at least 28,000 twitter followers."
Heffernan says that in some cases, online interaction offers things that in-person meetings don't. "The satisfactions are vast: You get to experience friends as artists, as devisers of photons, rather than as masters or losers in physical space," Heffernan says, via e-mail. "You don't know … Paul Ford till you know the cadences to his e-mail."
After Chickclick was shut down, my friends and I moved to journalling sites. Now we send e-mails and texts, sometimes to the whole group, sometimes one-on-one. Occasionally we co-ordinate over time zones for group video calls.
The last time I saw more than one of them at a time was 2010, I think. But we talk about it constantly, with excitement and longing. Online is great, but sometimes it can be bitsy-piecey. For me, what's really special about our face-to-face interactions is the chance to spend a big chunk of time diving into the immediacy of each other, being real friends in real time, right now.