Over the last few days I had the chance to spend some time with Charley, my long-time internet friend and cowriter. We ‘met’ in 2009 on Protagonize.com, but didn’t actually meet in person until late 2012. Having recently moved back to the UK, it was a lot easier for Charley to come and stay with me than it has been over the last couple of years while she was in Germany, so she came for a couple of days.
There’s something uniquely odd about spending time with somebody you know almost exclusively from the internet. Charley came to stay for a weekend in 2012, we met for an hour in Central London in May 2013, and I stayed with her for a week in the summer of 2013, but other than that all our interactions have been online, whether through Protagonize, Facebook or Skype.
Yet we’ve written a novel together (St Mallory’s Forever!), read each other’s writing, critiqued and fangirled and annihilated everything vaguely creative that we’ve each come up with, had bizarre conversations in the middle of the night via text, come up with ten million in-jokes that are funny to literally nobody else, and generally got to know each other much better than we know many of our other friends.
I’ve probably told Charley more of my secrets than most other people, and as a result, it seems odd to think this was only the fourth time we’d actually occupied the same space at the same time.
Suddenly it wasn’t effortless, ridiculous Facebook chat: it was planned outings and train timetables and long bus journeys on hot days. We actually had to think about it. Is that why I find it easier to make friends online? Because you don’t have to think about it so much, don’t have to consider what you’re going to do together?
But it wasn’t like the fourth time you meet someone in real life, where you’re still getting to know each other. You might know their hobbies or the names of their siblings but you’ve never had a late-night chat about your secret fears and most private confessions. I know Charley — we’ve known each other since September 2009 when we swapped anecdotes while collaborating on various silly stories.
There’s also a lot we don’t know about each other. Before she came, Mother Person was asking me questions like, “Do you know what sort of food Charley likes to eat?” I don’t. I knew about her food allergies, but I had no idea what her favourite meals were or what sort of portion size she considered normal. Other simple things — like fashion sense — that you’d expect someone to know about their best friend are still blanks.
Our friendship’s fundamentally different to those I form in person, just because of how we’ve related to each other over the past five and a half years.
Internet friendships are odd, but I can honestly tell you they’ve been a crucial part of my teenage years. My online friends have encouraged me through hard times, given me advice on difficult situations, critiqued and praised my writing, acted as a support network, given me reasons to keep going, and have generally been some of the closest friends I’ve made.
Is that sad? I don’t know as it’s the same now, but when I was younger there was very much a stereotype that the people who made internet friends rather than ‘real’ friends were loners and weirdos. And it’s true that I’m pretty odd by most people’s standards, and as an introvert I often prefer to spend time alone.
The fact is that there are people I count on whom I’ve never met, and I’ve offered support and encouragement to people who have never met me. Some of them I’ve got no idea what they look like. Many I don’t know their real names and only have the vaguest idea where in the world they live.
By definition that makes them strangers.
But they’re not. They’re my friends.
They’re not the runners-up or the consolation prize. They’re not second best to the friends I’ve made at school or university. They’re people I care about and have come to rely on — people whose triumphs I celebrate and whose bad days fill my with sympathy. Just because we’ve never hugged, taken a selfie together, or even used each other’s real names, that doesn’t mean we’re not friends.
And every now and again I get the chance to meet those internet friends, to find out that they’re several inches taller than me or that they never drink anything or that they look like someone I used to know or whatever it is, and it’s awesome. I can’t deny that there’s something special about talking to someone face-to-face or making them watch the campest moments of Michael Flatley’s original Lord of the Dance performance in 1996 (and the 1998 Feet of Flames, just as an added bonus). Of course there is.
But hey. It’s still a friendship without that, too.