I grew up in the age of the internet. While most kids my age did their fair share of dabbling, I was always all in. As soon as I knew what “the internet” was, I surfed websites and saved pictures and played games.
But mostly, I made friends.
I made friends while navigating AOL chatrooms and talking about the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. I made friends while subscribing to, reading, and crafting my own “zines” (online magazines sent via AOL emails). I made friends while swapping stories with other young girls who wrote for fun.
But I couldn’t really talk about this part of my life – not without sounding weird or socially stunted. At the time, making friends online was crazy. In fact, if there were five rules of the internet at the time, they were:
1) Never give someone your real name.
2) Never give someone personal details about yourself.
3) Never tell someone where you live.
4) Never give someone your phone number.
5) Never make friends with weirdos on the internet!
I knew this. And yet I’d broken all of those rules by the time I was in middle school. Maybe it was a little dangerous (it definitely was), but in my heart, I knew the connections I was forming with these people was real. I talked with these girls almost daily. We talked about school and homework and boys and boy bands and music and our aspirations. Sometimes we talked about families or what we were doing that weekend or fights we’d had with our “real-life” friends. We talked about everything and sometimes we talked about nothing.
It didn’t matter that we didn’t sit together in a classroom, or that our chat sessions happened entirely over AIM. These people I talked with were very much my friends… even if I felt too embarrassed to tell other people about them.
Although some of those very early friendships faded away (as friendships tend to do), I never stopped making online friends. I met new people through LiveJournal and GreatestJournal and, more recently, Tumblr and Twitter.
I consider these people just as much my friend as I would someone I met at a coffee shop or at work. And while I used to be ashamed to make it known that I met so-and-so online, I’m not anymore. Because here’s the thing: online friendships are every bit as real as every other friendship. My longest friendship is living proof of it. We met in a chatroom while talking about the Backstreet Boys when we were 13 or so. Ten years later, we were at a Backstreet Boys concert together. Thirteen years later, we text about really important things like boys and food (not much has changed). She isn’t just my online friend; she’s one of my actual, real-life, honest-to-God best friends and I love her to the moon and back.
Thankfully, others are starting to see “online friendships” as legitimate. According to an article The Atlantic published recently, a professor at Claremore Graduate University has been researching how online relationships differ from relationships in real life. “What he has found is that there’s hardly any difference at all,” the article says.
Online friendships matter. They’re real. They count. And I’m happy we’re starting to see that.
To all the friends I made on the internet – I adore you. Thanks for not just being my “online friend,” but my friend. Period. And may everyone find as many wonderful “online friends” as I have.