Recently, I was talking to a woman I met several years ago at RWA. I don’t remember who introduced us or how we became friends, but even though we rarely see each other, even though on the surface we have little enough in common beyond being writers, we follow each other on Twitter and Facebook and chat now and then about writing things and regular life stuff. On Twitter, in Direct Messages, I said to her that I was really glad we were friends.
It was a strange moment because not too long before that, there had been one of those incredibly unhealthy things that happens in the publishing world in which the whole definition of “friendship” came into question. What makes someone your “friend?” How much communication, how many secrets do you have to share? What are the limits on friendship? How much can a “friend” go against your ethical code before you no longer consider yourselves friends? Is it possible that I am your friend, but you are not mine?
I’ve made some of my closest friends online. I started working for AOL in 1993, when I was living a very isolated life in a tiny town where I had no friends. In those days people were writing and talking about “Internet Addiction,” but most of the people I knew who spent hours and hours online weren’t addicted to “the Internet,” they were addicted to the relationships they found there. Depressives, insomniacs like me, we found support systems and communities of people who understood us as no one in our everyday lives did.
Even today, I am friends with the people I met on the night shift at AOL more than twenty years ago. I don’t see them often, but we are absolutely friends. In 2007 when I was really sick and needed someone to stay with me, one of my AOL friends lived with me for several months since he was on disability. Yes, when you meet your friends digitally, you can put your trust in the wrong people. But that can happen when you meet them in person, too. Still, friendship is a bit like porn—hard to define, but you know it when you feel it.
In all the years since I started at AOL, the Internet has become more and more social. And I, well, I have gotten less so. I moved from jobs where I dealt with the public to jobs where I see almost no one. I am a writer in the world of publishing which, as I discussed with someone on Twitter just yesterday, is an extremely unhealthy ecosystem. My friendships develop in that world, the world where insane levels of arrogance are set off by the deepest insecurity and even self-loathing, where sometimes it seems that the “happy medium” does not, cannot, exist. I have found good friends in the writing and publishing communities, people that I met in person. But I have met more of them online.
In a discussion online about the most recent brouhaha, someone told me that “exchanging a few emails and direct messages doesn’t make you friends. Friends are people you show pictures of your children to.” I left it alone because I knew we were not going to agree, but it raised a question for me. I don’t have kids. Although I am private and don’t share pictures of my lunch on Facebook, I don’t have secrets in the way most people think of them. What would I share with a “friend” that I do not share with the public?
I would contend that friendship is defined not by the quantity of communication but rather the quality. My conversations with friends go deeper, last longer. Which means that, indeed, that you can give your friendship to someone who is not your friend. You can believe that someone is your friend because you communicate freely and openly with them on the assumption that they are doing the same with you. The things they are hiding are things you don’t think to ask about because you don’t notice the absence. And yes, the Internet makes this easier. But liars and cheaters were around before the Internet, and they’ll be here when our computers crumble into dust.
Friendship, however, lasts forever.