Most of my communication with friends these days takes place through a keyboard. There are a lot of reasons for that; many of my oldest friends are living out of the area, and IMing is the easiest way to keep in touch, for example. Many of my friends are also, well, ‘Internet people,’ for lack of a better word. They are people whom I only know from the context of the Internet, although I’ve gone on to meet some of them face to face later.
I know a lot of people who find this very odd.
And there’s an interesting reification of communication and relationships that happens when discussions about Internet communities and communicating online come up. Basically, there’s a widespread and common idea that Internet friendships and communities are somehow lesser, less important, less real and that things that happen on the Internet take place sort of behind a veil or curtain separating people from reality.
I think that there are a lot of undertones to this, ableism in particular. It is ableism to tell people who cannot easily leave their homes that the relationships and communities they build are somehow lesser. It is ableism to tell people who are not comfortable on phones or in face to face interactions that chatting with people online ‘doesn’t count.’ It is ableism to act like you are somehow better and your relationships are superior if you interact with people face to face.
There are all sorts of things going on when you start telling people that some forms of communication are greater or lesser than others. Many of these things are very, very dangerous and they reflect widespread social attitudes about people who can’t communicate to the satisfaction of others. Attitudes about our capacity for understanding and empathy, for example.
It’s profoundly disrespectful.
Let me tell you about my friends in the Internet, because they are awesome, awesome people. And every single one of them is a person I would not have met otherwise. I get to interact with people from all over the world, people with lived experiences that are totally alien to me, people from all different sorts of cultures and backgrounds. Living in a rural and isolated community, there is a very real risk of isolation for me, but all I have to do is fire up IRC and I can find someone fun to chat with, someone fun to spend time with.
We make things for each other. Did you know that? You might not, if you are not part of a tightknit Internet community. A lot of long-lasting communities set up gift and craft exchanges where we send each other cool things. We support each other. We pitch in when a crisis happens to talk to people we will never meet in person, to help people who need a little help now and then. We send things to people without knowing their legal names, or what they look like.
Members of many marginalised communities have set up safe spaces online. If you’re someone who is, as a friend in the Internet put it, ‘a roulette wheel of privilege,’ you might not be aware of how important this is. If you’ve never been, say, a transgender teen in a conservative community or a person with disabilities in a region where people think you should hide in your house all the time, you have no idea how freeing the Internet can be. How critically important it is to be able to meet up with people like you, people who have been where you are, people who are navigating the same things you are dealing with.
The creation of safe spaces has enabled some amazing conversations, taking place in locations you don’t even know about and will never see. When I see people being derisive about things like Second Life meetups for people with disabilities or private feminist chatrooms, it actually makes me see red with anger. It’s so profoundly disrespectful. It’s yet another reminder that some modes of communication are deemed better, more important, than others, and that people who can’t communicate like the rest of the world wants us to will always be lesser. And it’s a reminder that people working in solidarity with each other will always be threatened by people in dominance who find them frightening.
My friends in the Internet hold my hand when I am sad. They send me silly videos and bars of chocolate and lovely notes. We stay up late at night chatting and passing notes. We mock things we think are funny. We process things that are happening in our lives. We have rich, complicated relationships that are deeply meaningful to us. I spot silly things at the store and get them for people, I see something interesting and think ‘oooh, I’ve got to remember to tell so and so about this.’
I’d like to imagine that this digital/meatspace divide is the result of a shift in communication and culture, and that perhaps in a few decades online friendships will be valued equally with relationships that take place in the form of physical interactions. But, somehow, I doubt it, because online relationships are threatening and scary to people who are interested in the dominant mode of communication. There is a very real desire and interest to keep people experiencing oppression away from each other. To ensure that we do not network, do not communicate, do not exchange information, do not tell each other about our lives. And for that reason, I suspect that people will always sneer about friends in the Internet, and they will make a point of being proud about their ‘real life’ relationships and they will insist on devaluing activism that takes place in online spaces[1. Of course, one can only be active online or offline, right? Thus, it’s not possible for people to be active online and to be engaged in their communities at the same time. Oh, no!].
The Internet is a real place. There are real people on it and in it. Like people in physical interactions, sometimes they do horrible, evil, unspeakable things to each other. Sometimes they engage in random acts of kindness. I am tremendously enriched by all of the people I am friends with online, and I wouldn’t trade any of those friendships for a day in a coffeehouse with someone who bores me, I tell you what.