Real, live virtual friends

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Friends with Mobile Phones, by Garry Knight on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while, but didn’t quite know where to start. If you wait long enough, though, the Internet always serves up a jumping-off point. To wit: this article in defense of online friendships, which appeared in The (new, run by pod people) New Republic.

Long before getting cancer and starting this blog I led a vibrant virtual social life. (I met J on an online dating site, but then, that wasn’t much of a destination once we were in a committed relationship.) I want to say it began when I joined Weight Watchers and stumbled into a local support group on their discussion boards. I felt it wouldn’t be as weird to engage in lengthy conversations with strangers about my cravings for fattening foods if there was some chance I might get to meet them in person someday – which as I think about it now seems perhaps the exact opposite of why most people choose to engage with others online. (I did manage one meetup with the group, at a bar where, ironically, I met up a few years later with friends from another virtual realm. Despite what you might think, not everyone from the Weight Watchers group ordered a wine spritzer.)

At the same time, I took up running and found the discussion board on a running website helpful for coaching me through the grueling start of the “Couch to 5K” program. A pharmacist and avid lifelong runner in his 60s “adopted” a bunch of the newbies, including me, and we had a thread that went on for pages and pages. One participant from Indiana was trying to get in shape to try out for a SWAT team. Another, who owned an optometry shop in West Virginia, was starting up running to cope with empty nest syndrome. I loved that I had running in common with these people, who were not a thing like me in other ways.

And then… I got engaged to J. I was sore afraid of the Wedding Industrial Complex, so early on I found my way to the website Indiebride (no link, it’s gone with the wind). Here were my people! The ones who wanted their weddings to mean something to them and their guests, the ones who were irreverent when it didn’t matter, and serious when it did matter. The place where I learned I could purchase my (simple, elegant, 100% polyester) wedding gown from a bridal shop in Louisiana, saving me a pile of money, even though it was originally shipped there from New York! And most importantly, there were women (it was mostly women, maybe one random guy) who would not hesitate to cast a virtual “IFOD” (Indie fist of death) at whoever might have needed one – your fly-by-night florist, your wedding craft project gone awry, the almost universally dreaded MIL…

I won’t say that my involvement with this online community was not without its faults. There were women on there whose little fingers were craftier than my entire body was, and I may have been unduly influenced by that, to do crafty things I had no business doing – most glaringly, proclaiming we’d “do our own flowers,” which turned into a punishing, hours-long ordeal for almost everyone but me, since I’d had my manicure already and couldn’t join in the torturous “fun” of achieving my “simple” floral vision for the event. As a sort of penance, I was up until 3 a.m. the night before my wedding completing other crafty projects I truly had no business attempting. I posted a recap of our wedding and the few days before it that contained so much detail I probably wrote it in real time.

As time went on, and the glow of the wedding began to dim, I probably didn’t participate in discussions on Indiebride as much (though I probably popped back in to give advice or to read how others’ weddings had gone). And after a couple of years of wedded bliss, J and I were ready to begin the process of legacy-building. By which I mean, procreation. There were, by 2006, a lot of places to talk about TTC on the Web. I went back to Indiebride since I remembered a lot of people had started discussions there about it, and I found that many of my former interlocutors had decamped for a shiny new pasture, its name a clever echo of the geekier Usenet days of Internet community which I hadn’t frequented much. I’ll refer to it as the Dot.

So I joined up too. There was so much to learn! So many acronyms! And infertility talk was so commonplace, I began to worry that at 34, I’d waited too long and it wouldn’t work. When we failed to conceive after a single cycle, my mind ridiculously went to the darkest possible place. I had internalized content, abundantly available in the TTC discussions, without the slightest notion of context (my family fertility history, actual past attempts at getting preggo). What I did gain from these discussions was a better understanding of what it means to be infertile, and I hope it has made me a more sensitive person to issues surrounding it.

All through my pregnancy with Young J, the Dot was there, recording every kick and every craving and every ridiculous fear or anxiety I could come up with. I posted my birth story, replete with the kind of gritty, gory details you’d never want on Facebook. There were a few meetups with local moms and their babies from the same cohort as Young J. I was dimly aware of a parallel snark site set up, where infiltrators of the Dot would harass anonymous people anonymously, but I didn’t spend a lot of time there, and certainly didn’t think it was worth my while to post anything snarky. I felt like I had clear boundaries about how complex I wanted my virtual life to be, and going and talking behind someone’s back virtually seemed like a recipe for disaster.

I continued to participate on the boards quite avidly through Young J’s early childhood, my pregnancy with Young A and his birth. I started feeling a little more distant from the Dot, maybe due to being busier with two kids, maybe for other reasons. When I posted one day seeking support for a tough parenting situation, there was a vocal and very unpleasant backlash to my post that made me feel it wasn’t the safe space I had imagined it to be. I think there was some snarky talk by trolls (I didn’t investigate). So, I pulled back.

Luckily, by then I had managed to connect to some of the women from the Dot in a more “real” virtual context, Facebook. I had also joined (and then quit, and recently rejoined) another online community, a curated one with a convener, which comprises a lot of frightfully accomplished people from various contexts… and then people like me, who are there to cheer them on, and to aspire to such greatness.

When I got sick last fall, we had lots of generous and heartfelt offers of help – help with meals, playdates for the kids, etc. Our families helped. The community at the kids’ school was forthcoming with offers. We were so grateful. I was even grateful for (and amused by) all the offers of medical marijuana.

I never anticipated hearing from the women of the Dot, as an organized group. I heard from them, they offered support, and although I was having a hard time saying yes to most offers of help, I learned to say yes. They sent us delicious meals from our favorite restaurants. They checked in constantly, but never, ever often enough to be annoying. I got handwritten notes from some of them – even women I hadn’t interacted with on the Dot – sending me strength and prayers and well wishes. At one point I wanted to send written thank you notes and was informed of the number of people who were behind this effort – a whole lot.

Although I hadn’t been an active, contributing member of this virtual community for years, I am still, somehow, a part of it. And that virtual – but very real – community supported me and my family when we were most in need. That feeling is powerful, and in recalling this time and all of those who helped us, I will never forget the special support of my “friends from the computer.” I love you all.

I’ll close this out in the most Internet friend-ly way possible, with a vintage Muppet Show clip I love:

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