My friend Robert and I have been “internet friends” for nearly fifteen years. It’s really hard to imagine it but it’s true. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years but we’ve somehow always managed to stay in touch. If you’re in any way an “online person” you know that you can maintain friendships with people for many years without ever once having a real life conversation with them. So the question remains, are they really your friends? And if they aren’t your friends, what are they?
Most of us have real life friends, Facebook friends, and online friends. Not everyone has embraced Facebook as a way to stay in contact – many are still clinging to old school internet, the days of the listserv or the chat rooms or the message boards or the mailing lists. Facebook may indeed do away with all of them if given a long enough reign, if no other better program replaces them.
For some reason, though, I’d forgotten that online friends don’t necessarily translate into real life friends. The truth is, we humans enter a friendship in real life in a totally different way than we do online. How one writes often dictates an online friendship whereas in real life it’s much more to do with how well one listens, what one talks about, how one responds to another’s jokes or complaints. Subtle social cues are volleyed back and forth long before two people decide to take their relationship to the friendship level.
All of that is pretty much erased in an online friendship and thus, when I had occasion to take a week-long camping trip with my friend Robert, I was dealing with, essentially, a complete stranger. My 11 year-old daughter and I both were dealing with someone we really didn’t know in all of the ways that knowing someone is important. Sure, what’s in Robert’s head, what he’s interested in, what he’s passionate about, what he responds to – all of that is still there but there is so much more to a person than what goes on inside their head.
People are, in fact, like Sequoia trees. We have our heart wood inside but we really grow and survive by building layers on the outside. They make us tall and mighty, they give us substance, they define who we are. Robert’s own outer layers, those that had been growing for the last fifteen years, were never seen by me. I’d had one breakfast with him eleven years prior, just before I gave birth to my daughter. That was the only time, other than one phone call at some point, I ever had a real time conversation. Yet we’d exchanged thousands upon thousands of emails – we’d bared our souls to one another, complained, helped each other in and out of romances – and all the while, we were good pals.
The real life story was decidedly different. Robert and I didn’t really get along as well as we’d hoped. We tolerated each other, tried not to step on each other’s toes, and got in one screaming fight only once. “You are always insulting me,” he said. “Stop treating me like I’m stupid,” I said. I tried to be respectful, he tried to be accommodating – neither of us felt like we were doing anything right. But at least we’re getting to know each other.
It reminded me that online life can only fill up a life so much. In the end it can’t be entirely fulfilling because we are more than our own thoughts. We are more than the words we think up to write. We are more than a two-dimensional photo, shot to be flattering. The internet, it turns out, flatters us all. Real life is a little more, well, real.