There's this idea that the Internet is making us bad at friendship.
That we've all become so comfortable in front of a monitor, we've forgotten how to relate with people face to face...
That social media spreads our interests and interactions too thin — that we've traded friendship for a sort of two-dimensional acquaintanceship.
Traded true intimacy for nicknames and Twitter handles and saying happy birthday on Facebook.
The future, if you believe this theory, is dire. “The Matrix” plus “WALL-E” plus “Lars and the Real Girl.”
I believe the future is Bethany.
Bethany and I went to high school together, but that doesn't really matter for the purpose of this story. She was two years younger than me and just a face in a whole of clump of good kids I thought of as “the sophomores.”
When she friended me on Facebook a few years ago, I didn't immediately match her name to that face. By the time I did, it didn't matter because we were already chatting or connecting on Facebook almost every single day.
Maybe you've noticed this: That your closest friends on Facebook — or Twitter or whatever social media hub where you tend to park your time — aren't necessarily your closest friends in real life.
You end up clicking with people online whom you might never hang out with off.
People who'd never cross your real-life path. Maybe because your lifestyles are different (you have kids, they don't). Or your interests are different (they never miss a Husker game, you do). Or maybe just because you live hours and hours away from each other.
There's this tendency to think of those online friendships as inherently lesser friendships. Like it's more important to have someone who can hand you a box of Kleenex than someone who posts a link to “Cheer Up, Charlie” on your Facebook wall.
But if you're like me, you spend more time with your online friends than your face-to-face ones.
It's not that your Internet friends displace your other friends; you just have more access to them. You're spending time with online friends almost every time you're at a computer.
I've spent my entire adult life staring at a computer screen. For hours and hours a day. Before the Internet, those hours were spent mostly alone. Now there's a human rhythm to them:
I work a while. Then I check Twitter — I laugh. I shoot off an email to a friend, and “like” a few posts on Facebook. Then I write some more. I check my email. Laugh. Or I see that someone's having a rough day and link them to “Cheer Up, Charlie.” I work some more ...
I have a regular stable of people in my life whom I think of almost as co-workers. Some I've met in real life, some I haven't.
Some are more like acquaintances, good for a joke at the watercooler. Some know almost everything there is to know about me.
Who's to say that these relationships aren't real?
Isn't my life still real when I'm sitting in front of a computer?
This is it for me, this is my day-to-day. Me and this screen and this keyboard. I don't shut down when I'm at the computer; I'm still feeling happiness and silliness and anxiety. I'm still sharing those emotions with other flesh-and-blood human beings.
In a way, my Internet friends feel more real to me. They're always there. I don't have to stop my life and make time for them. (Not that there isn't value in stopping, and value in face-to-face. Nothing I say about Internet friendship is meant as a jab to other kinds.)
This brings me back to Bethany.
Bethany lives in Washington D.C. — though, again, that doesn't really matter for this story, and doesn't really matter in our friendship.
I'm not even sure how we went from Facebook friends to the sort of friends who talk every day. (If I haven't heard from Bethany by bedtime, I kind of worry about her.)
I think it might have started with her “liking” all my Facebook posts about “Harry Potter.” And then she read my novel, and we talked about that. And then we talked about our kids ...
And we realized that we cared about a lot of the same things — and, even more important, that we laughed at a lot of the same things.
Bethany and I can crack each other up now, just by linking to a headline or a photo of a celebrity. She'll know exactly what I think is funny, even if I don't say a word.
If my husband walks by my computer, and I'm laughing out loud or smiling, and he says, “What?” It's almost always Bethany making me laugh, and it's almost always hard to explain why.
I have a few dozen people I think of as my Internet friends, and I tend to connect with them all in different ways, in different contexts. (Allie who talks to me about books, Joy who talks to me about writing, Alice who makes me laugh.)
But Bethany and I are friends in every context. There are days when we connect on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, through email and text messages — different conversations work better in different venues. We usually have three of four happening at once.
And sometimes those conversations turn into, “I'm too tired to type this out, call you on your landline?”
We're both horrible night owls, which means I can send her a text at two in the morning about “Dawson's Creek,” and she won't think twice.
It also means I can send her an email at two in the morning, telling her that I can't sleep because I'm worried about something — because my kids won't stop coughing, because I've had a bad day at work — and she's there for me.
Bethany is there for me, like none of my face-to-face friends really can be...
Because she's in my computer. She's in my phone. She's always on the way the way I'm always on, and we're past feeling like we're bothering each other.
We've hung out in person when she was back visiting family, and that was just as great; she was an excellent friend, face-to-face.
But it's okay with me if our friendship mostly lives online — because I live online.
Our friendship is real, and I'm really, really grateful for it.
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