Geek in Gear: The myth of 'real' friends

Not to brag or anything, but I have dozens of friends all around the world. Most are in the United States and Canada, but there are a few as far away as Singapore and New Zealand. At least a dozen of them are people I’ve known for almost seven years. We’ve got history. We’ve got inside jokes and code words that only we understand. I’ve probably hung out with them more than any of my local friends in any part of my life, and that’s including my roommates, some of whom I’ve lived with for two years straight, and my old grade-school friends, who I still see every year or so but not too often.

And most of these distant friends I’m talking about? I’ve never met them face to face. I probably never will. And far from being sad, awkward, silly, ridiculous or whatever word you might think, that’s perfectly fine. Nowadays, that’s even becoming more and more normal, and that’s great.

With our world of technology, it’s beyond easy to keep up long-distance relationships with substance. My closer online friends and I manage a static chat room on the QQ messaging client (we used to use MSN Messenger until that kicked the bucket) and talk through Xfire when we’re playing games, which is quite often, as we’re all gamers. The chat room client is always up when I’m on my personal computer, which is daily, and conversations run anywhere from a new game to complaining about life problems like work and school.

I can recognize their voices, pictures and even the way they say things. I know their family life, how much they hate or dislike their jobs, and even mundane stories about them chasing down lost dogs or botching a snowboard run in front of a girl they like. I consider them some of my best friends, and I’ve never even looked them in the eyes.

Does that sound weird to you? Maybe it does. A lot of people might think that it’s really sad I consider many of my online friends my closest ones. Many people might consider those types of relationships “not real” or a sign of someone who’s suffering some severe social problems. And you know, some people who manage exclusively online friendships do have those types of problems. They can’t function in social settings. But they can function just fine online. Many of their online friends are people who understand them and support them even more than the people they know “in real life.” I’ve met these types of people (online, of course). They’re thrilled that they’re able to talk to someone who will listen. They’re encouraged by the fact that people want to talk to them and listen. They don’t feel alone.

Me, I just lived in the middle of nowhere when I was younger (and then I moved right back, which was a weird life choice). I didn’t have many local kids to hang out with who liked the same things I liked. If you think about it, you’re pretty limited in your choice of friends when you’re in the non-digital world. Most people keep their true selves secret when they’re in public, either because they think their hobbies won’t let them fit in or they just haven’t found anyone to share them with. It’s amazing that, with the odds we have, we can make amazing friends in real life.

Just think of how much easier you can make friends online in comparison. The Internet has billions of websites, and many of them are focused or have areas focused on select interests. I’ve met some of my current friends through art forums. Some of them have helped me improve my work, and others introduced me to conventions and selling at artist alleys, experiences that I now love and look forward to every year. It’s easy to make friends on the Internet, because you get to interact with hundreds to thousands of different people every day. You aren’t limited by geography.

I love my real-life friends. As an extrovert, I thrive on being around people.┬áBut I also care just as much about my online friends. Just because I’ve never talked to someone face to face, it doesn’t mean they aren’t as “real” a friend as someone standing next to me. Online friendships need to continue to become more and more acceptable and less demonized. You never know who might need one.