Friday, May 23, 2008

Long Distance

I can remember back in 1999 or so I was first making friends online, and at the time people around me expressed surprise that I would really count any of these online acquaintances as friends. And of course not all them were or became friends, but some did. Now, almost 10 years later I am still friends with some of them, even close friends. Along the way people really stopped asking if net friends were real friends, and I have many many friends now whom I mostly connect with online--scholars lead an itinerant life, or at least I do.

But of course it's not exactly the same.

There are people I see almost every day or every week in my immediate locale whom I consider friends, a few of them close friends. But even those that are not so intimate emotionally I know quite well in other ways just because I see them often. So I know what they typically eat, or whether they prefer coffee or tea, what kinds of clothes they like to wear, whether they are morning people or night owls--and this is all without explicit discussion. I just observe it.

I know these things about some of my online friends too, but only if we talk about it. I don't know about others, but when I am taking time to email, or IM, or chat, I don't usually spend time on these little details unless for some reason they become important as part of a larger point. But even as I write this I experience the same problem of what I would describe vs what might be observed--there are some people, a few, with whom I am in such close contact that even though we are only connected via skype or email, these details come through. But when describing our daily lives through an online medium, we all make choices about what to leave in or out. These choices create some picture of us for readers that really is only a thin slice of our lives, so in some ways our online friends almost inevitably have a distorted picture.

This is not to say people we see in person don't have pictures of us that are distorted in other ways, but I think the distortions may be less exaggerated because a broader range of information is available. Online we have mainly text, maybe some pictures or videos, and almost all of that is chosen by the author (leaving aside for now the issue of involuntary publishing that afflicts people with highly public identities). So it seems to me that this may serve to concentrate the distortions.

But does this actually matter? I don't know. As I said, some of my online friendships started 10 years ago and those that have lasted always lead to meeting in person at least occasionally. So maybe this is really no different from the largely epistolary relationships that were common before the telephone, or before rapid travel became fairly accessible to large numbers of people. But having both kinds of friendships does sometimes make me feel in an uncomfortable way that there is some kind of disjunction between those with whom I feel closest and those whom I might guess have the widest range of information. Are those closest friends closest to the "me" that I think of as "me"? I suppose the question has always been there, but now technology makes me really notice it often. Damn computers and ICTs. ;-)

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