“Ayo! I’m tired of using technology. I need you right in front of me” ~50 Cent

I don’t always use air quotes when I speak of my internet-only friends. Sometimes I say it straight, as if they were my regular friends, as if we met at the bar every Friday night for a shot, or a beer, or both, or many. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if we swapped recipes in my kitchen, or played Madden together like everyone did in the ’90’s. Sometimes I wonder if we would even be friends if we talked all the time, if our kids would hate each other on sight.

There was no way I could have imagined this world when I was a kid. If you knew people they were your parents’ friends, or they went to church with you, or they were both. Their kids were your de facto friends, but that was it. That was your sphere, and you never had any occasion to step outside of it, like the metaphorical box we are always begging people to think outside of these days. Back then, though, we weren’t supposed to embrace new people from far away.

Those were the days of “stranger danger,” which is funny because most people get hurt by those they know. But we were told to steer clear of the windowless van, the man with the mustache who looked just a little bit off, anyone who lived more than a block away, or didn’t know your first name. That was the age of not too many strangers, and when they were around we knew them. It was like the red-suited crewmen on Star Trek. You knew them because they weren’t household names. You knew when you saw them that they would be dying on the away mission because they were different, because they were “strangers.”

So, by college, when the internet became a thing, it was a shock to the system to be able to communicate with people across the globe, actual strangers I hadn’t thought about for years. At first it was a cautious thing, these communications, like we were in the jungle and I didn’t know if they were lions or antelopes (both kill, by the way). We used various nicknames to protect privacy, we talked about innocuous topics like music and games, and we felt safe in that cocoon.

Then things exploded. The information superhighway hit overdrive and everyone began to know everyone else. Social media dropped us into a whirlpool of everyone and no one, of all kinds of people who had tangential connections to us. Maybe we crossed paths in school ages ago, or we were “friends” of “friends,” or a vast array of other reasons. But when the dust cleared we ended up with so many internet-only friends it would have been scary if we still believed in “stranger danger.”

I began meeting them outside of the internet pretty early on, these people I might never have had cause to know if it weren’t for this technology. My mom told me they could be dangerous, that I should still protect myself, but by then I knew anyone was just as dangerous as anyone else, that it didn’t matter how much you tried to hide people could always find you out. If I was going to be on the internet I was going to immerse myself in it.

The other day, I went into my friends list on Facebook, and I tried to weed out which ones I knew IRL (in real life) from the ones I had never met in person. It’s sitting at 60/40 for those I know IRL, which shocked me, but I guess it shouldn’t have. I’ve grown my tangential friends tree exponentially with my blogs, with the expansion of my “friends of friends” connections, and with various other ways people find me these days. And it made me think…

Are they any less friends if I’ve never met them outside of these technological confines, if I’ve only ever read their words but not heard their voices, if I’ve only heard their voices but not been in the same room with them? Sure, I know so many people create online personas that aren’t at all like them IRL. Yes, I get that too many people aren’t even remotely the same when you get to meet them for real. But does that change the interactions we have out here? Does that make me reticent to call them true friends if they’ve been there for me on Facebook?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. All I do know is that of those who have made the jump from internet-only friends to meeting them in person and getting to know them outside of this box, the vast majority are good people. The overwhelming majority are as advertised. Maybe it’s just the sort of friends I tend to make anyway, or perhaps it’s the amazing screening process I have (I don’t have one, not really), but it’s something. Do I feel like I’m losing something by knowing some people only online? No. Well, not usually. Some exceptions do exist.

All I know is that I value every single one of my friends, that I place no real distinctions between those who I know IRL and those who I know only through technology. Every single one of them has the potential to disappoint me, to destroy my carefully constructed appreciation of them, to force my reconsideration of the friendship, but I give them the benefit of the doubt. I give them my friendship and I hope that they don’t let me down.

Over the internet… or wherever…


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Dr. K. L. Register

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