Back when I was a teenager, I didn’t care very much for other teenagers. I only had a handful of people I could stand to be around and I sometimes even questioned if this time was ever well spent. I really wanted to find more people who I wouldn’t just tolerate, but could appreciate. Fortunately, online friendships were becoming more of a regular part of adolescence, with the advent of social networks like MySpace and blogging places like Livejournal. So I dove in and created my own profile on both. Mostly, I just started adding people from my school because they were adding each other anyway, and we would comment on each other’s awkward pictures and posts in our journals—whether or not we actually talked in real life. It was strange, I suppose, when you look at it in retrospect. I also noticed how some people were adding other people they didn’t even know and I started doing it too. In fact, my best friend and I even made a contest out of it at one point. I remember how I ended up with over 8,000 “friends” on MySpace because of it.
I didn’t plan on it, but some of these friends ended up staying for a while. Some of these friends ended up getting to know me more personally and more intimately in ways that people in real life couldn’t and still probably can’t. Maybe it was partially because I was a writer, and because they were learning about me exclusively through the written words I chose to put down on the screen and I liked that better. I can’t really articulate myself in real life properly anyway, or can’t find the energy to do so. I felt more authentic, I felt like I was more interesting. I’d started writing to people more regularly and I found some pen pals. I wrote letters to people across the sea and across time zones. And, of course, I still do.
Of course, on the other hand, some of them vanished completely. What can you do? The internet allows you to pull the plug at any time, it allows you to cut people out that try to force their way in. It lets you become a recluse. You can rise like the phoenix in sporadic bursts, or you can reinvent yourself completely like some other kind of mythical creature. It’s up to you. I remember a girl who would joke with me about a boy who wore only Abercrombie and Fitch and had orange skin and thought he was God’s gift to humanity. I remember a boy who was into photography and read everything I wrote. I also remember another girl who had a best friend that killed herself when she was only fifteen, and it was during this time that I knew them both online. This suicidal girl with dark hair and polka dot shirts, she wrote to me a few times. Her friend didn’t suspect anything and her family was in complete shock. She was really gone—both online and off. And even though I never knew her in real life, something was suddenly missing. Her friend wrote poems about her and I tried to console her as best as I could. Her profile turned into a memorial. These severed connections still make me sad, even though I may have been only a small part of their lives. Maybe nothing at all. Sometimes I play a pathetic game with myself where I try to remember as many of these little ghosts as I can and wonder how much they’ve forgotten.
But my longest friendships have also been like this. They started with a click and a conversation, or a mutual friend who thinks we would get along. Is this so different from real life? Isn’t this a part of it anyway? Or has it not become real enough yet? We may never meet and we might be too far away, but we share ourselves through our letters and photos and videos. I don’t think our relationship is any less real than anything else just because we can’t hug. It would be nice to spend some time together and play some video games and browse the bookstore shelves, but I also like just being able to read those who matter and share with those who decide to linger.