Thursday, August 09, 2007

Online Relationships

Blogger pal Mimi recently sent me an e-mail suggesting I check out The English Geek, a delightful blog written by Amy S., one of the women Mimi knows through their shared passion for scrap booking. I'm always up for discovering another good writer!

One of the posts I found there that intrigued me the most was to hear what Amy had to say about Online Relationships.

Apparently she had just learned that one of her blogger friends (who she had never met in real life) had recently died. That caused her much sadness, but it was a loss that was not in any way acknowledged by conventional social rules for grieving. There is no recognized space in our culture for how deeply these sorts of bonds affect us. If someone you knew on the next block suddenly died and you mentioned to family or friends that your neighbor had passed away there would be sympathy and support for your sorrow. But because when the person you "know" is known only in cyberspace, the custom for validating bereavement simply isn’t there. Still, the loss is real and can impact a person in a significant way.

Even if the person doesn't die - let's say they just get busy with other things, change jobs or move on to leave their blog behind...we may feel a genuine sense of loss if we had come to routinely depend on time spent in that person's world, much like the sadness I feel for a co-worker who recently quit to go be a stay-at-home mother. I'm thrilled for her to begin this new chapter in her life of having her first baby. But I'm terribly sad for me to no longer get to work with her. I miss my pal. Work just isn't the same without her. Losing a valued blog can feel much the same way.

Human intimacy is such a complex thing. I am convinced that when we share bits of our minds, hearts and spirits meaningful relationships emerge whether we ever know the faces or not.

I've been teaching Sociology courses online for about five years. I have wonderfully rich conversations with student who I never meet in the real world. We develop bonds that matter. Yet many people discount those relationships when they learn I have not very met them face to face.

For instance, Mimi, who I have never met in the world is a complete stranger to me in the physical sense. But a week doesn't go by that I don't check her blog to see what she has to say. She’s made me laugh, made me think, and offered many sweet insights I have treasured. We don’t have all that much in common – we follow different faith traditions and are at very different stages in our lives. Still – through comments we leave on one another’s blog and sprinklings of sporadic e-mails in between, we have created a friendship that adds richness to my world.

Jaquandor is another who I count as a friend although we know each other only in cyberspace.

Papa Herman is a hybrid pal - MOST of our contact is in the virtual sphere but every once in a while - usually many months apart - we will see each other in the world and enjoy one another's family.

There are a handful of others (you know who you are!) who I am just now beginning to get to know a bit better...introduced through a comment here I now read them regularly and am getting acquainted. When I think of my online friends I think of people who are very dear to me, whether I ever meet them or not. They enrich my life in many ways.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, the sort of dark side of the virtual world is that SOME people do get so caught up in their cyber relationships that they begin to withdraw from their regular circle of people they know in the world. Family and friends they could do regular activities with start to take second billing to the comfort of the computer. That can become unhealthy. If we'd rather be blogging that living our real lives ...that's a slippery slope I think we all have to watch out for.

Then there’s also the issue of deceptive blogging – where instead of revealing myself to you I might create a completely made up persona to interact for whatever agenda I might have – from the most benign form of designing an alter-ego for fantasy fun to the dangerous predators that stalk for vulnerable prey.

I do choose to use a pseudonym for most of my online writing...just something that popped up way back when this blog first began. But the ideas and feelings I express are authentic. But how would anyone know if they were a complete fictional fabrication? I could post pictures claiming to be me or my family that had no basis in reality. I could pretend to be who I am not. I think that's something we all have to remember as we reach out to those we meet across the computer.

Still, I've been duped in the past by face-to-face "friends" who turned out not to be who I thought they were, so that is not something unique to cyberspace contacts.

I think it is wonderful that we have this amazing way to broaden our circle of contacts beyond our immediate geography (especially since I live in such a dinky little town where potential like minded others are rare indeed!)

So my heart goes out to Amy for the loss of her blog friend. And it reminds me to tell all the people who I've come to know in the cyber world - thank you for your presence. Thank you for sharing a part of your heart or mind, your opinions or your memories or your beliefs, with me. You've stretched my world and made it better. Even if we never met.


Lei said...

I too am convinced that we forge very real relationships online, they are no less significant to me than perhaps a real life relationship. But I hear you on the dangers. They seem to mimic some of the things that we'd be cautious of in real life, too.

Heather said...

It's sad that so many people don't understand the value of these online friendships, although I think that will change as the current generation being raised online grows up and becomes parents and then grandparents.

Some of the best friends my husband and I have are ones we initially met online---through a video game no less! After about six months or so we met in real life (we live about an hour and a half away from each other) and really hit it off. We consider them and their kids to be some of the best friends we have. We still do much of our "socializing" online just because we live so far apart, but usually once a month we manage to get together for a day. We'd be devastated if something happened to them.

And while it's true that we do have to be a bit careful about folks we meet online, as you said, we also have to be careful with folks we meet at the grocery store or the community center. And there are public, "safe" places to meet these online friends should we decide to get together.

Much sympathy to your friend! That is indeed a difficult loss.

Mimi said...

Oh, thank you for the sweet words. I agree, it's kind of odd sometimes to hear myself saying, "my friend said..." when it's not anyone I've actually met you know?

There is a speed to the intimacy that is forged through online relationships as well - it's often hard and fast and it feels like you are really intimate quickly. Then, as one gets distracted, it burns out just as quickly as it comes, and there is an emptiness.

I can't wait until we are actually blessed to meet in real life.

Ruth D~ said...

Cyber relationships are no less important or valuable than the traditional flesh and blood ones. I have both types of relationships. I love all my friends, but I find that an online friendship cuts to the chase. There is no visual, or body language to detract from the real person inside. Cyber relationships go straight to the heart and soul of the person. Flesh and blood ones often take a while to get there.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Very thought-provoking blog, Belladonna. I know there are several bloggers I would miss if something were to happen to them, and yet I feel hesitant to share too much of myself online.

I also hear you on the face-to-face friends that can be false, as well. Sigh -- so much duplicity in the world, in the midst of so much truth as well.

Amy Sorensen said...

Thank you, Belladonna, for your kind words! I have bumped into that "strangeness" several times...many people don't really understand online friendships, but in my life my online friends have often been more supportive, helpful, and real than my "real life" friends. I am glad to know that other people get this!

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