Sunday, September 6, 2009

on virtual friendships

i've been thinking a lot about virtual friendships. html giant had this posting recently asking if people were friends with writer/artist types, and that got me thinking about virtual friendships and why they're so attractive.

growing up, i didn't have a lot of friends, but i very much so wanted to be social. i wanted it so badly that i began to gossip, telling all my family friends anything & everything i knew, regardless of how it affected others. i was fairly young then, maybe 5-7. maybe younger. the point is, though, i understood that people would give me attention if i had something to give them. this legacy of unhealthy notions of friendship has followed me.

throughout high school & most of college, i--like most young women--flirted my way into friendships. and yes, duh, women flirt with women. it's socially acceptable. it's socially desirable. these are things i enacted without being conscious.

now, though, i'm more aware. does that change things?

but back to virtual friendships: what is it that makes them so attractive? well, the most obvious answer is that people are looking for validation, and if they can't find it in the "real" world, they look for it in the "virtual" world. people who are socially awkward in "reality" can have huge followings "virtually." besides, if you're actively blogging, facebooking, etc. etc. etc., when do you find time to be social? (of course, there is a balance.)

here's something that sucks: many people rely on the virtual world because they're unaccepted in the real world. the virtual world just gives people an opportunity to be doubly rejected. man, rejection sucks.

here's the hitch though, what happens when virtual world & social world intersect? that is, when you meet your virtual friend in real life... over the years, most of my writing friends (with a few exceptions: frances, kirsten, michael... well, now kirsten & michael are virtual friends since we don't live in the same place) have been virtual friends. when we (writer virtual friends) correspond, i don't mind being utterly vulnerable with them, mostly because i know i'll probably never meet them, and if i do, it's at AWP or some conference where there's no time to really talk anyways. except when there is. interactions that were once smooth, intelligent, smart, funny, and so on become stilted, awkward, filled with gaps. why? well, obviously, we're used to technology mediating our friendship. we're used to having time to think, be witty, whatever.

here's the other thing: when we type and email or whatever, the person on the other side is still a mystery. we just see an email address, a name. maybe we've read their book or stories or poems. we have a romantic sense (not as in romance, i want to sleep with you, but romance as is archetypal) of the other person. when we're confronted with a real person on the other side for the first time, of course, there's bound to be disappointment, and not just physically.

next, no matter how quick virtual interactions are, even with chatting, i'd argue that all virtual interactions are one-way. there is no real "conversation." i type something. send. you type something. send. but that "send" takes away the "conversation." there person on the other side may or may not be there. may or may not be real. may or may not be genuine, but none of that matters because i've sent "send." it could go anywhere. (i haven't really thought this part through. there are holes, i know.)

anyways, &now is coming up. i'm excited to see old friends (who i actually know) and meet new old friends (whom i've never met). i guess this post is a precursor to that.

i haven't blogged much over the past few months, but i'm back. say hello to lily, virtual world.


  1. This post is from a while ago, so it's kind of embarrassing to respond to the blog, but hey, in the interest of virtual engagement. I wanted to ask: isn't there a kind of virtuality at work in every human engagement? Not to undermine your points on the striking differences one encounters when meeting someone they previously only had a textual knowledge of - as in the case of writers we have followed on the internet. There is a onesidedness, but there is also a readiness to external engagement. For example, your blog. Your manner of writing has both a contemplative interiority, as well as a style designed for public-ation. I feel like the internet in particular - whatever method allows us to speak in different media in particles, beyond the confines of the missive - is a kind of armature for expression, with a more fragmentary, but also better proliferated, public configuration. We can know people intellectually, for example, fairly intimately without having met them, and this knowledge is only extended by the availability of recognising them in different platforms, through different modes of expression - blog, story, flash fiction, video, audio. Perhaps in person, due to the sophistication of our virtual relationships, we will emphasise the corporeal, communicate more physically, appreciate the moving desultoriness of human engagement and chance meeting. Just thoughts...

  2. Corey-- Yes, of course, there's absolutely a virtuality in every human engagement. I'd argue that because we're all looking for acceptance (in one form or another & because we're social creatures), people shift to conform to their environment, thereby making a virtual/public self. The blogosphere is no different. Here, though, as you point out, there is a knowledge of public-ation. (I love that term, btw.) Here, from the way we write, etc., readers form their own conception of who & what we are, and this may vary greatly from our actions or interactions as physical people.

    I love your idea that having an intellectual-virtual relationship emphasizes the corporeal & increases communication in the "real" world. In fact, I believe this has been the case in most of my interactions with people, once we get past the initial awkwardness of meeting for the first time.

    Btw: I'm so very glad you posted a response (late or not)!! I was inactive here for quite a while & thought any potential reader had disappeared.