Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

I’ve been giving thought of late to the notion of what actually constitutes a friendship in the modern world. A lot of ‘normal’ people (yeah, you know them) will still maintain that it is impossible to form any kind of meaningful relationship with anybody else over the medium of virtual because there is so much that people can either hide or be dishonest about. That’s why, as a parent, I keep being told to watch my children’s online safety, because clearly they could be exposed to potentially harmful material at any given moment if I’m not either watching them like a hawk or sticking restrictions on their access. This would then be the moment when I’d start a sentence with ‘actually’ and there’d be a joke there for some of you, but it would become undeniably apparent that the World is changing.

This ad campaign by Ford is one of many public acknowledgement by advertisers, companies and manufacturers that yes, we know things are changing too. We get that societal norms are no longer what they used to be, and as a result it might be time to stop treating you all like it’s still 1995 and actually start moving into the future. Ironically, large sections of American media don’t seem to have received this memo, and will undoubtedly still continue to labour under the belief that nostalgia sells for some time to come. Fortunately for everyone else Netflix and Amazon are ploughing new furrows, companies like Ford are looking at genuine re-invention and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to talk about Internet Friends with your parents at dinner this year and not get sniggered at. However, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done on that front, and that’s where I think I ought to be standing and making a point.

Yes, you can have meaningful relationships on the Internet having never met the person you’re talking to daily.

letters

Once upon a time, people wrote letters to each other when vast distances separated them. Now they compose e-mails on handheld devices, or they instant message, and the distances shrink to irrelevance. As an example, when my step father in law passed away late last year, his son was able to Skype the funeral with permission from the Crematorium to Costa Rica, uniting relatives both too old to travel but still wishing to remember the man and his life. If you want an indication of how commonplace these tendrils have come that entwine the planet with each other, you need only look at the BBC News website for confirmation. I can watch what has come close to the most severe blizzard to hit the Eastern US since records began without getting cold or having to worry about running out of bread. Then, over my cereal and tea I can read an article published by The News and Observer on prisoners writing letters and those who read them based in Raleigh, North Carolina. They champion themselves as the area’s most significant news provider, by the way, who just happened to have jumped into the information revolution with nando.net back in 1994.

It’s amazing what you can learn on the Internet, you know: it’s not just for radicalization, porn and pictures of kittens. It’s also for expanding your horizons and meeting new people who then go on to form a lasting and significant part of your life.

The internet is a great place to be when, while you’re talking to someone who claims to be on stage playing a gig in Japan, you can challenge the assertion and be proved wrong. That happened yesterday morning, and the proof of State Champs’ gig is now Storified for the world to digest at their leisure. The thing about embracing the moment is very true: you can make things more special by living them with someone in the flesh, but there is just as much joy and wonder in being able to do this with someone you don’t know and may never meet. You only have to look at how a certain Mr D.Bowie changed the world for so many simply with his music to understand that knowing someone’s middle name or their favourite colour does not mean they are your friend. What brings you together is the same love of life, beauty, immediacy and honesty. Because if you want to hide online you will, in exactly the same way you can hide in the real world. Being anonymous doesn’t make it easier unless you’re deliberately targeting those who don’t understand how the system works, but that could be true in reality as well. There is an honesty affordable via the virtual that is often only used for sex and deception, and it doesn’t have to be that way. What is required is decency between both parties, and a willingness to dispense with traditional preconceptions.

Yes, you can be friends with people online and it can be an extremely rewarding and enriching experience. The only way it works however is if both parties are prepared to allow it to happen. If you can’t manage that in reality, then it will be a stretch wherever you go, and maybe that is the bigger issue so many people need to deal with in themselves before they begin telling others how to live their lives.