Have you actually met any of these people?
– a large proportion of friends and family, to me, at various points in the last decade.
There’s a very good chance that we’ve never met. But that’s okay – we can still be friends. And here’s why that is.
1. What is a friend?
How big is the sky? How long is string? How annoying is Sarah Palin? These are all fundamentally unanswerable because the question attempts to grapple with a practically limitless concept.
Ditto “what is a friend”.
If you’re furrowing your brow at that statement, I’m glad. You should. The concept of “friendship” is one we like to think we hold firmly in our minds, like to think we generally sorta-kinda agree upon. If we’re asked to write down and compare…well, that gets fun very quickly.
Friendship = emotional attachment? Well, yes. But also no. What about enemies? We certainly have an emotional attachment to them – ie. we want them laying in a gutter with our footprints on their backs. So, has to be a positive emotional attachment? What about friends that never cease to send your stress levels through the roof? Where do our frenemies go here? Do we just take an average, over time? (“Sorry, according to Excel you’ve been a jerk for 53% of the last quarter – we’re so done here.”)
Friendship = knowing someone well? What about acquaintances, people we know glancingly, at work, at the bank, at the shop that sells us lunch every day? If they’re not friends, exactly how well do we have to know someone to have them step over the threshold between acquaintance and friend? What do you have to do together to become friends? Where do you have to go, what do you need to see together? What needs to be said? How do we join? What are the rules?
Friendship = proximity?
Okay, I admit it – I was totally leading you here. This is what I really want to talk about.
2. Meeting Friends For The First Time
Over the last decade I’ve had the very good fortune to meet a number of really great people I already regarded as friends. It’s a nice thing to experience. Natalie came to York and kipped on the sofa-bed (brave woman). I met Olga in Durham, Phil in Edinburgh and Elena in Manchester. After e-corresponding with her for 8 years, I met Dani for the first time at her wedding in Giulianova, Italy. I dragged HoboNora (featured in an ebook out today) to Whitby, and Beth to Goathland. I nearly met Miles, didn’t, and now sadly never will. Years of banter with Katja came to a head one overcast day in York where we sat in El Piano and threw olives at each other.
Cut to last weekend. I’m stood at a bus-stop just round the corner from London King’s Cross, not waiting for a bus. The rain is drifting down in that apathetic, self-pitying way it does in England in late February, and I’m slowly getting nudged out into it by people who can smell a time-wasting Northerner a mile off. Buses keep turning up – unsurprising, yes, but also incredibly annoying as they’re stopping right in front of me (because it’s a bus stop, Mike), obscuring my view across the street where The Fellow is preparing to open for the day.
That familiar thrill. That familiar worry. Do they realise I’m…well…me?
The sign turns from Closed to Open, and I step out into the rain (after giving someone a parting elbowing) and drip my way into the pub. Table for three, please. The waitress looks at me as if it’s a common scam and I look the sort that pulls it.
I nurse my tapwater, trying to look respectable.
In bursts Nick.
A few minutes later, Cheri arrives too.
And all is fantastic from then on.
3. Why Meeting People Online First Is A Great Idea
What first makes you want to be someone’s friend? Pick from the following list:
They’re Fun / Funny
They Have Fantastic Hair
They’re Here, Right Now
They Drive A Nice Car
Their Mind Is Shiny And Bright
They Have A Good Job
They Have Loads Of Other Friends
You Can Be Yourself With Them
They Look, Like, Amazing
Their Charisma Feels Like Standing In Direct Sunlight. On The Sun.
They Clearly Like You
They Take 200 Selfies Every Day
Now take a look through that list and categorise them into either Healthy or Unhealthy. (Here’s a head-start: the selfies one definitely counts as “Unhealthy”).
Now have a good, hard think about which of these can be tagged “Online” or “Offline”, or both.
Finally, run your findings through the following elementary equation:
(where 1, 2, 3 etc. are numbers and a, b, c etc. are letters, and so on)
With a little schoolboy math, you will see this proves clearly and definitively that online relationships aren’t necessarily more superficial than “real-life” ones. I’m not suggesting I have a deeper and more meaningful bond with the last person to totally pwn me on Battlefield 1942 than with my own mother, but since my Mum has never actually tried to pick me off with a bazooka at 200 paces, I’m just guessing here.
Online friendships have their limits, but they can also sidestep a lot of superficial snap-judgements. It doesn’t matter what car someone drives. It doesn’t matter if their hair is truly abominable. What matters is their brain, and that’s what is on display, key by key, character by character. You’re looking past appearances because you can’t actually see each other.
(That’s the idealised theory. It’s much more muddied in real life – I mean real virtual life. But at its core, whether on Twitter or Facebook or WordPress or on Messenger Live or anywhere else that allows you to talk to another human being – I reckon the principle still holds).
4. How Can You Be Friends With Someone You’ve Never Even Met?
Nothing replaces the flesh. We know this. Only an idiot would argue otherwise.
(No, I’m not arguing otherwise. But hey, thanks for checking).
A friendship that’s never been face-to-face is incomplete. But it’s still a worthy, tangible form of human relationship, and there’s two pieces of evidence that support this, namely:
(i) That People Are Doing It.
I respectfully suggest that 1.5 billion people can’t be wrong. And growing, every year. This is the direction our societies are taking, like it or not. Believe that virtual conversations are a waste of time? But that’s what the Internet is for. And that’s what it does. So good luck with that.
But the real kicker for me is that…
(ii) People have been having virtual relationships for hundreds of years.
Via archaic, low-technology devices called “letters”.
In some cases, the letters forming the bulk of what we know about some very famous minds indeed.
(Sadly, this doesn’t immediately elevate your Twitter stream into the same pantheon of cultural immortality. Deal with this, move on).
We are a type of creature that has evolved a way to deal with the world that we call “imagination”. We spend a lot of time in our imaginations, planning this, regretting that, wondering what we’d do if things had been different, working out how to avoid getting shot by imaginary bazookas (I may be projecting here, sorry). We’re already wired to form virtual relationships with things, and have been since we developed opposable thumbs – but now, for the first time in history, we have a way of doing so with each other with near-zero time lag. Our imaginations can overlap.
So forget the fact that we haven’t met, and might never meet. If that happens, it’ll be great! (Or, truly awful).
But not having done that doesn’t mean we’re strangers. We don’t have to be, you know.
Want to be friends instead?