The comfort of strangers

10
Sep
2009

In the internet era, we are defining all kinds of new relationships with other people. These relationships are filtered through the online communities we subscribe to, and these  color the kinds of connections we have. Whether through a dating site, a Twitter subscription, following a newsgroup, or immersing oneself and exposing one’s life on a site like Facebook, these are fundamentally new ways of connecting with people and the rules and etiquette are still being worked out.

One has all kinds of friends on Facebook, and people will use the site differently depending on who they are. Some people will say yes to any friend request (often resulting in ridiculously long lists of “friends” in the thousands), some will keep their profile private to all but a few close and trusted friends that they know well in the “real” world. Most of us are somewhere in between, having a wider circle of friends (acquaintances, really) on our lists than those that we see all the time.

Some of these are people who you start to get a sense of from the way they interact with your profile.  It is interesting how you get to know people, get a better sense of them over time in the virtual world, when for whatever reasons you didn’t have the time or opportunity in the real one.

I have a couple of examples to share. The first is Judith, a woman I know in the real world and used to work with at the LA Weekly. Well, work “with” wasn’t exactly true. I was in IT and she was in Editorial and our paths would cross from time to time for work reasons, but we rarely had any meaningful contact. I always thought she was nice, but never really had a clear sense of who she was. This is normal, you can’t know everyone in an office of hundreds. We became friends on Facebook the same way so many people do; we had friends in common and shared email addresses in our address books. Over time, watching and responding to her postings and seeing her respond to mine, I have gotten a much better sense of who she is and what she believes, as I am sure she has of me and my beliefs. Although I don’t have day to day contact with her or know much about her quotidian habits, I know that I have found a rather like-minded person in many ways, and I appreciate her comments and discourse.

In a similar way, there is a guy named Aman who I friended only for the most vague of business contact reasons, suggested to me by mutual friends in India. We don’t have much direct contact at all, but politically, I notice we are somewhat similar and sometimes exchange comments and “likes” on our various postings. Over time, even never having met the guy and him being from a very different background from me, I feel a small kinship and trust. And this trust is built entirely in the online world.

These are new kinds of friendships, only made possible by our interconnectedness online. In a sense you could say that the internet has lowered our barriers to entry in the publishing world, and that many many more people can have a voice now (not just the owners of presses and TV stations), but that is only half the story. The internet has given us a way to talk back, directly, to these publishers and talkers. And we are all much more likely to be part of the conversation instead of passive watchers basking in the glow of our sets.