The Candy Apple
Technology Is Only What We Make of It
I’m tired of defending what is good about social contacts made on the Internet. I will continue to do so, but it feels like a lost cause. The anti-technologists say that the Internet provides us with a wall of anonymity, a way to mask ourselves from other people. I’m not denying this, because for some people, that’s the only way they choose to use the Net. I’m saying that for lots of people, myself included, it is an opportunity to make real connections with real people that are deep and meaningful and fulfilling.
I have three friends now that I didn’t have two years ago, and they are as important to me as anyone in my day-to-day life. More important than most. I met them online, and have since made a point of meeting them in person. The in-person meetings are irrelevant to the affections we have for each other. With these friends I have particular kinds of interpersonal connections I’ve never experienced with face-to-face friends. I trust them with thoughts and information about myself that I have not told many face-to-face friends.
One of these friends and I agree that if we lived in the same town, we would not have met or become friends. We know how things are in real life, and we would never have bumped into each other, or likely not clicked if we had. In our online relationship, though, we are able to be totally honest with each other, in ways that would have been difficult in a real-life friendship, had it ever gotten that far.
A second friend and I know that we would have bonded if we’d known each other in real life. We share a common interest in writing and editing, and an affinity for bridge (which I gave up but still enjoy talking about). We only have one significant ideological gap, and it is easily talked around. In fact, in writing this column, I talked with her about it, to make sure she knows where I stand and why, and that I understand where she stands and why. We appreciate what is generous and courageous about the other.
The third friend…I can’t guess if we would have met, or hit it off, if we lived in the same city. It’s not as clear to me as the first two. As it is now, though, we often spend half an hour on the phone discussing Title IX, or a movie, or anything face-to-face friends discuss. The e-mail exchanges are not jokes and pictures, but authentic conversations about meaningful topics. Mostly. There is nothing artificial or contrived about any of these friendships. The only artificial aspect is that without an online community, we would never have met.
I know it’s possible to fake a persona online, but I believe that over time, the genuine person comes through in the words. Over time, you can tell who are the people you trust. You can tell who are the people who annoy you but you know that might be because they have something useful to say. And you can tell who are the ones who just annoy you. Those qualities cannot be masked for very long. In fact, against popular opinion, I think of the Net as a place for unmasking. In real life we disguise ourselves, or augment ourselves, with particular clothes and houses and possessions. Online we do not. We are naked. The people we talk to do not have any clue what we look like, or how old we are, or how tall or what color we are, or any of those things that should not matter about human beings. We are able to be ourselves, far more than on some occasions when we play a role to impress someone else.
It’s not all peaches and cream. Plenty of folks use the Net as a way to withdraw from social connections in real life. For me, though, it has been a way to meet lots of new people with a common interest, people who have helped me and whom I have helped. The beauty of this kind of set-up is that I can leave a note for one of my particular friends (or for a member of the larger group) at any hour of the day, and she can reply at her leisure. I work nights, and often post notes at 2 AM. The reply will come the next day when the recipient sees it in the morning. The buffer gives us time to reflect on what to say and how to say it, which I’m thinking might be handy in some face-to-face conversations, where people so often say things they regret. When you type those hurtful words and then see them staring at you, it makes it very hard to hit that Send button. You have time to consider how your words might make the other person feel, and to choose them carefully. We don’t always have that in real life. Might be better off if we did.
Also in This Series
- On Temptation · July 2010
- Beyond Pen Pals · July 2007
- Just Because We Can Do a Thing, Does Not Mean We Should Do a Thing · March 2006
- Google Tells Big Brother to Take a Hike · February 2006
- Wikipedia Is Not the Lovefest We Thought · January 2006
- Star Trek Gadgets Have Arrived · December 2005
- The Silver Screen Keeps Shrinking · October 2005
- It’s Just Business · July 2005
- Age Has Its Advantages · June 2005
- Complete Archive