I remember, about 100 years ago, in 1983 I was in school and being coached into writing a letter in French to a French person in return for a letter back in English. I remember not being utterly thrilled with the idea. About two years later a Spanish girl at a resort foisted her home address onto me as I climbed onto the bus to leave for home. She then followed me onto the coach and refused to get off unless I kissed her. I was horribly embarrassed as forty passengers on the coach sighed a collective “awwww” at the prospect of such young love. I was fourteen, she was sixteen. And it went nowhere. Making long distance friends just wasn’t convenient back in the 80s.
Due to life I made a lot of friends on the Internet over the years – some I got to know beyond their internet handles and some remain a bit of mystery. Some, I miss – like Coral and Wildeyes – and others I just keep good memories of. Making long distance friends had gotten a lot easier but because net access seemed to be restricted to diehard geeks and people in college, you might find that you lost track of people as soon as they graduated. And some people may not realise you were friends because your username now is utterly different to the username you had in college.
Later still, when I became single again, I made some more friends across the Internet. Some like Jared, Zach, Lewis, Stefano, Lynda, Ali, Suzi, James, Waleska and I’m sure there are others I could mention, have become regular friends. The girl I’m going to marry in 2008 I also originally met on the ‘net though it took a year of on-off real world friendship for us to become more than that. I love you, Arlene x.
What I’ve noticed about FaceBook, in the few months I’ve been there is that it adds very little to my online experience. It, and other sites, provide an online connecting experience for people where they can message each other, find old friends, make new friends and keep alive a tenuous connection which may become a friendship but may equally also remain as just a coincidence (oh, so we went to school together. How….quaint.) I’m not in touch with any of my classmates from school. I don’t know how it happened but I just didn’t have anything in common with them and it means that now school is a (very) distant memory, I see no reason to suddenly hook up with these people who, let’s be honest, I didn’t like much when I was 17 and I see even less in common with them now. The sentiment of “I knew you once” just doesn’t cut it.
I understand my experience to be comparatively progressive. While I’m impatient with the standard of social networks at the moment (FaceBook, Friendster, FriendsReunited, FaceParty, Bebo, MySpace, Orkut, LinkedIn and others), it’s more because I was using an analog of instant messenger and chat rooms back in 1991 with text-based MUD/MUSH games. QUB was surprisingly negative about the phenomenon but then their policies have always been short-sighted and their facilities excellent but crippled by jobsworths. Having friends online only has never been an obstacle for me. I have about 200 people on my buddy lists and though seldom more than 20 are online at any one time, I get enough feedback about them from their presence and seldom feel the need to actively communicate. Passive communication can be enough.
My kids are already waking up to a world where their playmates are not in the house next door. Whether it’s doing homework across a videoconferencing link, sharing ideas via email or instant messenger, meeting online with the Mii avatars to play online games or even just beating up Cogs in Disney’s MMORPG “Toontown” with other cartoon-themed players, they’re not going to be cognisant that in the “olden days” we had to travel to a friends house in order to play. Traveling will be one of many options – and I think it will be important to reinforce the importance of face-to-face play.
But this world of tenuous but less ephemeral connections I fully expect my kids to retain these coincidental friends for much longer on their buddy lists. Where I am wowed by the possibilities of the computer in my hand, I find non-technologists to be under-awed. Their understanding of what went before and what is possible now is not connected. They don’t necessarily realise how hard it is to build these networks and services – as much as I don’t really understand how a TV works.
I want to actively encourage their participation in these online worlds of connected presence. Where the four of them will have an online protected identity, connected securely to their friends and family.