Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This is the real world #1 Friends & Mentors

I'm waiting for people to stop writing articles about how rubbish or dangerous the Internet is. There have been so many in recent months that when I tried to track all the links down and provide all the hat-tips, it'd be a post in itself. I'm sure you'll have seen them, not those stories in which people have made mistakes with (relatively) new media, such as James has documented here, but stories about Twitter or Facebook rotting your brain, the death of blogging, young people being made stupid by the Internet and so on. Special mention must be made to Ira who recently wrote an excellent defense of Web 2.0 and has frequently argued for social networking as a tool for learning.

I wrote briefly about my passive social life a few years ago. On-line or off-line, it is all the same to me. I think I have a very good social network. It is quite hard to say that without sounding like a boast, but it's mostly to do with my good luck and the gullibility of a handful of caring and interesting individuals who imagine I'm worth their investment. I have a few close and precious friends for whom I would walk through fire, so to speak, and then I have slightly less close but nevertheless valued friends and then a load of interesting friendly acquaintances. And regardless of how we met, I hardly ever see any of them face-to-face.

I wouldn't choose this, but that's the way it is and the way it has been all my adult life. And although I would love to have more face-to-face contact with my friends - I wish I had the energy to e-mail them more often - I do think there are real advantages to having at least some of your social life on-line.

So I wanted to write about the positive things about on-line social contact which would be positive for anyone, not just a poor lonely invalid like me. It'll be at least two posts, but I might write about something else in between. So today;

Interesting Friends and Uninhibited Mentors

I was talking with a friend about this (actually talking, with our voices) and she said, “I never trust people I met off-line. You have to go through so much social rigmarole, you never really get to know them.”

I laughed. I said I had friends, I didn't say they were normal.

Normal for people of my class background would be to have a circle of friends drawn from people the same age as me, in the same income bracket (often the same occupation or employer), with the same shape families and the same interests. Sometimes such friendships can be precarious, based as they are on so much common ground; if a person gets sick, loses or changes their job or gets divorced, they can find themselves cast out. At other times such friendships are more like family ties and as such, a person can wind up bound to friends they don't actually like or get on with. Not that the quality of a friendship is inversely proportional to the things you have in common, every single friendship is unique and works slightly differently. In any case, I'm excluded from all this because I got sick and don't fit in with anyone.

It's not like my social circle is massively diverse. Most of my friends live in the UK and most of them were born here. But in every other superficial respect they are all over the place. Their age range spans over thirty years, they are in very different lines of work with very different interests and domestic arrangements. And thus the common ground, which I guess must exist in all friendships, tends to be something reasonably deep.

Now, I am the kind of unBritish person who strikes up conversations with strangers, but it is a quite complicated business getting to know someone - really know them - off-line:
  • You meet. You talk. When you first meet someone, you are likely to talk about the weather and whatever immediate situation you find yourselves in (a party, a train journey, the checkout queue etc.). You are not likely to prize a great deal of information from them at first - it happens, but it's not usual. I don't meet many new people off-line because I spend so little time out of the house.
  • Social etiquette is such that you don't exchange details or arrange to meet again with someone you've met only once unless you are trying to get into one another's thermals. So your next several meetings are left down to chance. If you belong to the same club or have friends in common, then this is hopeful. For me, because I don't get out much, this is hopeless.
  • Only much later, after several face-to-face meetings, do you begin to really know what a person is about, and you form a bond which means that that person will miss you and bother to call or e-mail when you disappear for months on end. Since I don't get out much, it usually takes years to get to know someone this well off-line.
It's not always like this, of course, and the few friends I have made off-line in the last twelve years have broken this pattern. On-line, things are easier. You don't need to walk away from that first conversation, you don't need to worry about being seen to be too keen or not keen enough because you can talk over a period of days or weeks. And then you're in touch. You don't need to wait to meet again, you know where to find one another whenever you like.

And so you get to know people deeper, quicker. You get to know people who you would never have known otherwise. Nothing to do with geography, not really. Often, the conversation that we needed to have in order to... fall in platonic love? would never have taken place, even if we were next-door neighbours.

This is especially the case with those people, only some of whom became my friends, who have taught me stuff. All sorts of stuff, explained facts to me in science and history, explained theories in philosophy and sociology and imparted a great deal of wisdom. You can get so much from books, but a person who is prepared to explain things, listen patiently, answer questions and explain again is invaluable. And if the fact I left school at fifteen and have next to no formal qualifications ever surprises anyone, that's partly about reading and listening, but partly about all the (generally) older and wiser people who let me feed on their brains - most of whom, I have found on-line.

And this was especially the case when I was younger - what middle-aged man or woman engages in a serious conversation with a teenager who they are not either related to or employed to talk to? On-line of course, people don't necessary know your age, and even if they do (a) they can't see you so it's not an ongoing distraction and (b) nobody else is looking on, wondering what's really going on between you.

This is another obvious advantage (and the great peril) of on-line social contact. The observations of one's wider social circle can be very useful, sometimes a life-saver and are particularly important when it comes to young people and anyone who fancies themselves in love. Nobody I know has ever had a crime committed against them by someone they met on-line, but there are stories about romantic relationships with people who were not at all as they seemed. This can happen off-line - in fact, it happens all the time - but there are usually many more opportunities for other people to point out what the lover cannot see.

However, the judgment of on-lookers can also make things complicated. We have this idea that the main purpose of non-familal social contact is either straight-forwardly sexual (pairing off) or connected to sexual identity (shopping, watching sport etc.). Many people remain suspicious of men and women who are very close friends (unless he is gay and she is straight - almost every other combination seems to arouse suspicion). And it's not just about sex. When you have friends a lot older than you, there is the assumption that you are plugging some psychological hole in one another's life - your older friend is supposed to be the parent figure you've been missing, you their substitute child and it's all rather unhealthy.

One relative has a delightful habit, whenever I mention a friend, of asking, "What's wrong with them?" on the grounds that all my friends must be disabled (or at least, that's what I took it for - now I've written that down, they might mean something else entirely!).

Being on-line can makes it easier to be friends with whoever you happen to like, however weird such a friendship would look to other people. And you're all great, wherever you fit in!

I feel I have now outed myself as a really sad case, but as I shall explain in my next post on this subject, I am not in the least shy or insular - and the Internet has saved me from being so.


irasocol said...

Fabulous breakdown of the way things go. I am always confused by the argument that "most online conversations are superficial nonsense" - well, I've overheard f2f conversations from rural Michigan to New York, Dublin, and London, and hey, most human conversation is just that. It is rare to work past the barriers - the fears and limitation you so well describe.

It is odd, we often prize those "postal relationships" which we can still read - whether romantic or collegial - yet contemporary versions are not accepted.

Oh well. I prize all of my 'deeper than superficial' human connections. They sustain themselves, obviously, because they are mutually valuable in a variety of ways.

I think of how we "met"- through BADD, and now I find myself worrying when AJ is in surgery. That's human, not technology.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

You're not a sad case.

I've met the most fascinating and delightful people on the internet.

I meet more people away from the internet,and they may be fascinating and delightful too, but we're almost always in too much of a hurry to make the effort and time to find out. As you point out, we've constructed social randomness rules which make it almost impossible to establish connections with anyone outside our own tight spheres.


Gary Miller said...

Well said!

If AccessForum didn't exist - I would never have had the spark for accessibility kindled.

If BADD hadn't happened - I would never have shared so much passion, pain, humour and downright joy with others.

Most of my best friends are virtual...

Mary said...

I find it easier to hold my own online. If I have a relevant thought or opinion, I will put it forward, and I will explain why I feel that way, and if it's something I feel strongly about, I will be prepared to defend it over the course of several days, if necessary citing (and linking to) references and direct quotes.

Whereas in "the real world", I defer a lot more. It's not that I lack confidence, but, for example, if I'm at a friend's barbecue, then I will sit there and nod and smile and participate in a discussion about Big Brother that, online, I wouldn't have even clicked on. If a relative of my partner is making bordering-on-offensive assumptions about my disability, it's not the done thing to whip out a laptop, dial up the Spoon Theory, and beat them repeatedly over the head with it.

I try to stay respectful even when disagreeing with others no matter whether I'm online or offline... but if you get to know me by reading what I've put online, then you're probably getting a much clearer idea of who I am and what is important to me.

S. said...

Often, the conversation that we needed to have in order to... fall in platonic love? would never have taken place, even if we were next-door neighbours.

Exactly! This is an excellent way of putting it. Some of my closest friends are people I met online, and now I sound like a sad case too, but really I think those conversations that happen online that might never occur offline are the reason I have hardcore friend-crushes via the internet more often than in person. I tend to meet offline friends similarly, too -- for some reason, at someone's drunken orgiastic party, a few people are in the corner having that conversation.

I wonder what it is that leads me to make friends that way; is it the matter of the conversation? The relative lack of social observation online and in particular situations off? Hm.

Radio said...

What a great post :) I unintentionally met my boyfriend online and we very quickly became good friends, talking about all sorts of things I wasn't able to talk about in "real life". We're both agreed that if we'd met each other in a bar instead, we'd probably never have spoken to one another, much less developed that sort of bond so quickly.

My involvement in Esperanto means a lot of my social life is online because most of my closest friends don't live anywhere near me and I might only see them once a year. Of course, I have the option of a 'normal' social life through work with people I allegedly have something in common with, and occasionally I make resolutions that I must try harder to cultivate this social life... but whilst all the people I work with are perfectly nice and I don't mind having a drink with them once in a while, the fact remains that we never talk about anything meaningful and socialising with accountants isn't always a great deal of fun anyway ;)

On the whole I find the friends I make online less judgemental and more interesting... but possibly I am just exceptionally bad at making friends in real life!

Gone Fishing said...

You are all very real, interesting and informative, Every opinion matters we are FREE! Which is probably what our forbear Soldier Boys died fighting for.

You have no idea as to how many great "socially difficult" people I have had the pleasure of teaching to use the "Net"

I can smile wryly and say that it is often just as well you cannot see how twisted and bent some of the people you are talking to really are.

The internet is a stick my tougue out at system which portrays me as "risky claimant" difficult, legatious, adversarial and having lots of negative opinions where I can post experiences which would otherwise be strictly supressed.

for my own part I refer Ghandi and passive resistance.

Yesterday, for something to do, I did a name search and went through 50 pages of our family name members on facebook! 50 pages!!!!!of potential friends and thats an uncommon name

I set "Google" to inform me whenever anybody serched my name, such makes one feel really common.

I love reading your Blog and a lot of the others on your Blog Roll and other Blogs insites to real life as it is without hopefully predudice.

I learn heaps from them all, especially not to hold predjudices aginst anybody and never underestimate anybody.

Which hopefully does not make me some shameful old pervert, or that I may be seen as attempting to sway your opinions of me you are ALL my friends and I value your every word

Meeting people face to face does not matter, People form their own opinions and ideas about you based soley on their own experiences or the need to fit you into particular boxes.

They can never or ever want to comprehend much about you.

However on line one tends to enjoy being able to portray themselves from their own unbiassed experiences and comprehensions so you must get a far more accurate and pleasant visions of them.

If you find a conversation superficial nonsence (again who judges? based on what parameters) Simply go find another conversation more to your ideas of interesting.

Seems we are really all pretty much alike, have pretty much the same hopes and desires and ambitions in life.

Yet there is a Beurocratic need to seperate us into groups or boxes to polarise and control us sway our ideas and anything, such as Freedom of Expression or the Internet which enables people to share opinons or ideas is a very real threat even in so called free countries. No doubt there are good sides and bad sides to Internet use but isn't the freedom to share without biassed control what a free life is all about.

once again who decides what is normal, and what needs to be censured and why?????

My Dad had a Short Wave radio receiver which took up half a room and almost took a power station to run it.

For hours at night he would sit listening to stations all around the world.
How he would marvel at Cell phones, the Internet and me sitting out here viewing opinons from every facet of the human world instantly to the world.

Where else do you have the opportunity to do "Experimental Writing" where you just let the drivel flow and see where it leads.

Maybe I should add a facebook link to my blog and stuff the annonimity we all worry about.

Internet, boring? superficial? NEVER!

Tis the best thing since the wheel! treat it always as just entertainment and enjoy every minute of being on line.

Unknown said...

Your post reminded me of a situtation I experienced once.

A lady a bit older than me and I were both waiting for taxis.
We had a bit of a chat, and then her taxi arrived and off she went.
I never saw her again.

She was a stroke victim (one of the young ones) and was a little hard to understand, but not that much.
We hit it off so well, and I just think - I wonder how many other people would bother to take the time with her. It will always be a hope of mine that we meet again somewhere.

yanub said...

If you are a sad case, then so am I. Everything you said about net friendship is true. I look forward to part 2.

Chloe said...

I really enjoyed this post -- I have quite a few friends, both online and offline...and both groups of people are vastly important to me. I've met many of my "online" friends in person and now share an even stronger bond with them.

Your entry also struck a chord with me because there is more than one person whom I've met in "real life" and subsequently befriended via online modes of conversation for one reason or another. One of these people is now my best friend. If I hadn't been able to do that, these people probably wouldn't be in my life today and that would be a shame.

The Goldfish said...

Well you guys and gals certainly cured me of the embarrassment I felt about this post. Thank you all for the great comments. :-)

Full Tilt said...

Dear Goldfish,

Thanks for a great posting. Your points are wonderful and in all of my visits here, I've never once felt you to be a sad case, nor have I ever worried over your qualifications in any way. I hope AJ is doing well. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Not a sad case. Meeting people online can be fun and interesting. I suppose it can be dangerous too- I've been in a blog war once and ,even as a bystander, there was lots of trauma for all- but care should be taken everywhere since there are a lot of unstable people in the world. Since I hate small talk I'm a fan of writing.

imfunnytoo said...

I love this. And yes, you can get to know so many folk and learn so many interesting things about them.

I don't see the advent of newer 'social networking' as a 'death' to blogging....if anything the reach gets expanded.

ecobunni said...

The positive side of online life isn't given as much time as the negative, it's such a relatively new form of communication so there is a basic fear of change I think.

It will be interesting to see where the future takes us and how perceptions change - I think it will become much more generally accepted with time.

Myself, I do have qualms about children's' use of the net. It can be good in moderation with supervision, but in my son's class (year 6) there has been a lot of bullying via msn/facebook. It seems to me that just as people feel they can have deeper conversations online the flip side is that some will hide behind a cloak of anonymity to say unkind vicious things to people which they wouldn't dare to face to face. It can also affect the bullied child very badly, as it isn't as easy to ignore insults which pop up in front of you on the screen in your own home as you would deal with/ignore face to face insults. Of course the problem is caused by lack of parental supervision rather than the internet itself.