Saturday, June 27, 2009

Still here

Excuse my absence, I'm having a rough few weeks. Nothing remarkable, just sleeping lots and not being terribly awake in between. Hope everyone in the Northern Hemisphere is enjoying good weather. Will blog something properly soon.

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.