by Laura Crum
My blog post last week about a very sad experience I had in the world of horse bloggers (“Is This a Good Idea?”) generated some insightful comments and really got me studying on the whole issue in a more general sense. So today I’d like to pose some questions about “virtual relationships” and see what others think. Because I suppose you all engage in this sort of thing, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
My own experience of virtual horse friends began when I first started writing for this blog. Previous to that all my email correspondence was with people I had actually met, or it was nuts and bolts business type stuff. I had never had a friend that I “met” online. People did write to me to say they liked my books (or didn’t like them), but none of these very brief correspondences ever developed into an online friendship. To tell the truth, I was wary about this. I felt a little uncomfortable writing to people I didn’t really know and kept the notes brief and polite, never shared much about myself. Then came blogging.
I started blogging with the simple idea that I would do it to publicize my books. I don’t do book tours, and it seemed like an easy way to reach new readers. I doubt I would have thought of it on my own, because I wasn’t in the habit of poking around on the internet. I didn’t read blogs, or do facebook or anything like that. But Jami invited me to join Equestrianink, and my publisher begged me to do it. What harm could it do, I reasoned. I could do it from home. Well… I never would have predicted what actually happened.
When I first started blogging, I clicked around on various horse blogs just to see what blogging amounted to. I learned a lot right away. I started commenting on blogs I thought were interesting. In a very short time I was no longer blogging solely as a way to reach new potential readers for my books. I was interested in the horse bloggers I had “met” and enjoyed reading their blogs and discussing things with them. I began corresponding with some of them. And I struck up a pretty regular correspondence with one that I admired immensely. For the very first time in my life I had a “virtual friend”, someone I’d never met in real life, that I only knew through our internet correspondence.
Now if you read my previous post you know that this relationship did not work out, and I don’t want to belabor the details. But I do want to explore the parameters in a general way and think about what is and isn’t possible with virtual horse friends, people we meet through the blogosphere. Because I engaged in my first friendship in a completely well motivated but very naïve way. I thought that I had found a “magical friend”, and I guess I sort of believed that we could go beyond the boundaries of “regular” friendship. We weren’t limited by needing to take time to go for coffee. We could talk many times a day while we did the things we needed to do in between. It seemed like our minds were directly in touch. And there was something very seductive about the physical distance. We could share things we would probably never have felt comfortable sharing face to face unless we’d known each other for years. And that’s exactly what we did. We shared a ton of stuff with each other. I thought it was amazing that I’d found such a wonderful thing. Like I said, it was magic.
Without going into the details of why the relationship failed, I want to point out that we never met each other. We never even talked on the phone. I never had the experience of feeling her “energy” in person. I’d never even heard her voice. In the end our communication broke down and I became very confused as to why this was happening. What I think now is that it had a lot to do with the medium. Just how truly close is it possible to be with a virtual friend? Is it necessary in some way to be in a person’s physical presence to know them? When you only connect in cyberspace, even if everyone is being as honest as they can be, isn’t some essential piece of who we are missing?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but after writing last week’s blog post, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about them. I’ve come up with some ideas, which I’d like to share, and hopefully some of you will give me your insights. Because more and more now, virtual friendships are becoming the norm. And I for one think it is very worthwhile to explore what this really amounts to and how it does and doesn’t differ from in-person friendships.
One thing I did learn. After my first internet friend wrote me off, I saw a video she posted that showed her talking and interacting with friends. It was a huge eye-opener for me. Suddenly, in a small way, I could feel her energy (if you will) and I knew right away that if I’d ever met her or talked to her earlier in our relationship I would have been much less trusting. Lets just say that she reminded me very much of another horsewoman I know who is a perfectly nice woman but whom I would never choose for a close friend. The energy I felt on that video made me uncomfortable. It was nothing like the energy I thought I had felt coming from her through typing away on our keyboards.
But….that said, there is a kind of energetic “footprint” that comes across through email and such. I recognize the particular tone that each of my blogging friends has. They wouldn’t have to sign their emails or comments—I know who’s talking. So what is that that I feel? It isn’t the same energy or aura that I feel when I’m in the room with someone. That’s composed of body language, tone of voice, physical appearance, conversation and something indefinable…just the basic energy of that mind/body/spirit. I feel it like I see colors or smell scents. I can’t explain it but I feel it very strongly. What comes across on the internet is different. My first friend had a very different “energy” talking to her real life friends than the “energy” that came across to me through her emails and posts. But the “personality” I felt through cyberspace was a definite thing. So what is that thing?
This is the mystery I’m interested in. If the persona we connect with online is not the “real” person, it is still a definite persona. I think at times it may be VERY different to the real in-person person. And maybe sometimes its pretty similar. But either way, what the heck goes on? What is it I’m connecting with when I connect with someone online? Is it just the pure mind, divorced from the energy of body and spirit?
I got very curious about this after my first online friendship ended. I had several other horse bloggers I corresponded with and I became quite a bit closer to one of them due to sharing some similar family issues we were having. This time I was much more careful in what I said, having learned a lesson from ex-friend (with whom I was very open and unguarded), and this second connection was a very different person. Not touchy at all. Truly kind and unaffected. No conflict ever arose between us. It was an entirely positive relationship. But my curiosity really went to what it would be like to meet her in person. Would she be anything like I imagined her? Would she seem like or unlike the energetic footprint I felt when I corresponded with her?
Eventually the opportunity arose, and I took my courage in hand and made the effort. She and I had talked about how different people were in person from what they’d appeared to be online, and she had had this experience before. I wondered if she’d be disappointed in what I was like in “real life”. I wondered if she’d be anything like the way I sort of imagined her to be. I’d seen her photos online so I knew what she looked like. I have to admit I was pretty nervous. I think she was a little nervous, too. But we went ahead and met. And it was good.
Her home and critters were exactly as I had envisioned them from reading her blog. And she was different. Prettier, younger looking, with a lighter, sweeter voice and energy than I had somehow imagined. And at the same time I could feel that she was my same online friend. Nonetheless, her energy in real life, though I found it very pleasant, was not exactly the same persona I felt through blogs and email. I’ve got to admit, I was fascinated. I felt like I was exploring a whole new dimension to human interactions.
Anyway, our visit was short due to time constraints, and when we were both safely home and facing our computers, I asked her what she had felt and asked her to be frank. I’d gotten comfortable enough with her (online anyway) to trust we could be frank and it would be OK.
Turns out she had felt that I, too, was both different and the same as I was online. My voice was lower, she said. For me, the voice thing was big. She said she felt a little uncomfortable, thinking of all those intimate things we shared, and here I was, and in person, so to speak, we were strangers. But overall she was comfortable with me and sensed that I was an OK person. We both agreed that a brief hour-long visit was not enough time to loosen up and really get to know each other face to face.
The whole encounter was interesting and pleasant and our online friendship continues. I learned that you can meet people online and they can be consistently who they seem to be and be very nice in real life, too. But I didn’t have enough time with her to sense whether we could have become “real life” friends. And she felt this, too. So, interesting, a positive experience, but inconclusive.
Then I turned it around. I took my real life best friend, who is a lovely person, and tried chatting with her online. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t like it. The things I love so much about her did not come through online at all. You could tell she was a nice, upbeat person, but she sounded sort of superficial. Which she isn’t. So that was enlightening, too.
So far I’m still concluding that the persona we connect with online, though “it” has a distinct personal flavor, is not the same thing as our true human personality. And I’m still wondering what it is we connect with online if its not the real, complete person. Can we change this phenomena? I’m thinking not. I think it’s a function of the medium. I’m guessing that the more straight forward someone is in real life, the more they will be who they seem to be online. People who are withdrawn and who somewhat hide their thoughts/feelings in reality, will be very hard to “know” online.
I’ve valued many of the people I’ve met online and would like to believe that we can become true friends “virtually”, just as we can in person. I love chatting about horses with my blogging friends. I love hearing about their adventures. And they’ve offered so much kindness and support. And yet I remain puzzled, no stymied, when I try to work out what is and isn’t possible when it comes to forming real, lasting friendships (such as I have with quite a few people in “real life”) with folks I’ve only met online. Perhaps my one very bad experience has made me unduly careful. I don’t know. Does anybody else have any thoughts on this subject? Can one truly know another online? Or is that impossible? Did anybody else besides me ever try to forge a close friendship online? Did it work out? And do some of you think that making friends online is no different to making friends face to face—the same problems and pitfalls apply? Or are there unspoken rules that apply especially to virtual friendships? If so, does anybody know what they are?