Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On and Off: A Study in Friendship

I met my first “Internet” friend before it was considered unsafe to do so; actually, before it was considered at all. The year was 1996, and this boy I talked to online took a visit to my town with his parents. We hung out one afternoon, and I got my first taste of what it’s like when someone misrepresents their self on the Internet. We never talked again.

My second Internet-to-real-life friendship was a bit more of a success. We met that same summer in the same chat room, and took our friendship offline that same year – to phone calls and snail mail, anyway. It wasn’t until the year 2000, a few months past my 18th birthday, that (with my parents’ permission) I flew out to Chicago to meet Adrian. It was the summer before college for both of us, and I stayed with him at his parents’ house in Michigan. We’ve kept in touch over the years, visiting each other again at least once. He’s now one of my oldest friends.

And then there’s my new roommate; our friendship started when we were college freshmen and both blogged on Livejournal.com (though back then we called it journaling). As we (and our numerous other LJ friends) grew from angsty teenagers to young women, several of us met offline (and nearly all of us have taken our relationships from Livejournal to other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and good old-fashioned e-mail). I met my now-roommate for the first time in 2003, visited again once or twice, and when I moved to Boston two years ago, we became close friends. On Monday, we’ll both meet a third LJ friend for the first time.

After that, the lines begin to blur…there was OK! Cupid where I met that boy and had that fling in Burlington; MySpace, where I made contacts in Morocco before I relocated there; Lonely Planet’s ThornTree, where I cavorted with fellow travelers, who sent me books and peanut butter when I was down; CouchSurfing, which brought all sorts of different people from all over the world into my home…After that, there was Global Voices, then Berkman, and now I’m not sure whether I met certain people online or in person first.

At this point, I no longer distinguish between “online” and “offline” friends. Just as it felt entirely normal in 1996 to make a friend online and expect the relationship to grow in person, there is now the realization that it can go both ways. If I meet you at a party today and we exchange information (because face it, we are more likely to exchange e-mails or Twitter accounts than we are to exchange phone numbers nowadays), it is more likely that our friendship will grow online before we meet again. And surely there is a benefit to that; rather than sit through dinners or drinks in awkward silence as we get to know each other, by the time we see one another again, we’ll be aware of common interests: similar academic or political interests, shared friends, compatible tastes in music or books. In other words, we’ll bypass the awkward moments, leaving more time to make more valuable friendships and skip over those which don’t provide us with value.

The same goes for work: Traditional networking events are all well and good, and I certainly believe in meeting people first in person before making any business plans (someone whose résumé and skills look great on paper can present horribly), but such events move quickly, and you want time to work the room. Being able to chat with someone interesting for five or ten minutes with the knowledge that we can meet up again online later makes it easier for me to move on.

I’m sure most of my readers will feel the same way I do; after all, I’m only a peon compared to some of the great Internet minds I cavort with every day. But what does the rest of this country think? The world? I’ll bet it’ll be a long time before the lines blur so easily for most people. “Meeting someone online” for most still implies dating: Match.com comes to mind far before Twitter. Not to mention the fact that the generation of digital natives has been taught, for better or for worse, that the Internet is full of predators. On the other hand, today’s youth think nothing of connecting to their “offline” friends online, making all sorts of things possible.

As Web 2.0 gives way to Web 3.0 and beyond, and as social media continues to grow, so will our conception of relationships and what makes them strong. And as we take our online friends to the “real world” and our offline friends to the Net, those lines will ever so slowly begin to blur for all of us.

13 Comments

  1. very interesting, jillian. i must say that if memory serves me correctly, i have only formed relationships with online folks outside of the united states. partly because it feels safer–the world feels smaller somehow in the arab world, people tend to know people you know, etc.–and partly because of that small world feeling itself. i went to a jordanian bloggers meet up in amman when i lived there a few years ago. and in lebanon slowly but surely i started to meet other bloggers, too. english language blogging communities are small in beirut and amman so we tend to read each other’s work and know of each other before we know each other. for me meeting other bloggers–especially those with similar political opinions–makes sense, but the other sort of venues online–chat rooms and such–i’ve never been able to fathom on or offline. perhaps it is my age. but blogging gives you a huge context about someone’s thoughts before you meet them so i think this is why it somehow feels different. it’s like reading a book or books by someone and then meeting them. sort of.

    • I know what you mean. If I hadn’t started so young (I was 14 in 1996), I would probably feel the same way. And counting sheer numbers, the majority of people I’ve met offline are not from the U.S.!

      I do agree about blogging though; something interesting about bloggers is that I’ve always been very likely to befriend them on Facebook if I enjoy their blog – because reading their blog is one thing, but being able to follow, in some small way, the other goings-on of their life, and get to know them on a personal level, has always appealed to me.

  2. We have more in common than I previously thought. 1996, huh? I have you beat by a few years. But our stories are very eerily similar.

  3. I’m a rather late bloomer in the online world compared to you. My parents were very strict and proactive in keeping things like this from happening. I did start blogging around 2000 in order to keep up with a couple of my friends as we were just graduating from high school. I haven’t had a lot of luck transferring online friends into real friends, possibly because I spend too much time working in the theatre and only recently broke into the online world as a way to escape the distaste I was developing for the world I live in here in the Bible Belt. I imagine I will have more success once I move somewhere else for my job as I am currently in a transition just building resume experience so I can teach somewhere I enjoy more. I do, however, see where many of my new friendships online could easily translate to offline friends & that’s a nice feeling to have :-)

  4. I’ve been online since 1992, but 1995 or 1996 was the year my family left Prodigy and moved to the real

  5. I’ve been online in many years also on diffrent online dating sites, i use the sites most for friendship but also some few times there have been more than chat and mail, i think dating online is a perfect way to find out off people before meet them, why wast your time. Ofcourse ther are some fake profiles on the internet but if you meet one off this profiles you will normaly find out off this before you send money to Nigeria for a ticket to your new dream or something like this.

  6. Someday you’ll going to find a friend that will never live you and would be there when ever you need a comfort and a shoulder to cry on if you have a problem. I’ve experienced this once before but I never give up finding that person.

  7. We have more in common than I previously thought. 1996, huh? I have you beat by a few years. But our stories are very eerily similar. over dating

  8. i started to meet other bloggers, too. english language blogging communities are small in beirut and amman so we tend to read each other’s work and know of each other before we know each other. for me meeting other bloggers–especially those with similar political opinions–makes sense, but the other sort of venues online–chat rooms and such– local sex

  9. Yes many things are change in the way we communicate we are truly more likely to exchange e-mails or use Twitter accounts than we are to exchange our phone numbers, and many friendship are started online. Dinner and drinks and other kind of meetings are more latter in an relationship than before.

  10. I also believe in meeting people first in real person before making any kind of business plans whit them, skills can look very great on the paper or mail you get but who make the mail ?, you can better desire your moves and willing to work together after a personal meeting.

  11. I’ve started to got online year 2000 way back college years. I was pretty fascinated on the power of internet to communicate people all over the world. I meet different people from different walk of life and hear different stories about them. I got some friends online too, where in fact because online I got my very first job.

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