Let's go down a river.
I was sitting here recently, talking to my best friend and secret lover that happened to be on the other side of the world at the time via IM, when it dawned on me how lucky I was to be doing so.
We were in the midst of a discussion about "real" friends, and the vacuity of their abundance. See, this is a social era, more so than ever before, and the internet only magnifies that. As such, there's a certain perception that being social is better than being asocial. Of course, it very well may be, but that's not what I'm arguing; my problem is the perception.
It's similar to the scarcity of time (shout out to James Gleick's brilliant Faster) and the pride not having any seems to create. When someone asks if you're busy, you say yes. You have a schedule to keep. And a looming deadline. When you go to bed, you mourn the missed chore because you didn't have the time to complete it. This is why power lunches and TV dinners exist. And yet, somehow, we view all this as a good thing. A sign of our importance.
Busy people are successful people, after all. When we don't have time to breathe, it's because we're too busy living.
This extends to MySpace, Facebook, and all the other sites. Again, just as this is evidently a time-deficient era, it's a social one. And that carries some pride. We've all seen it before. Although, I don't have a Facebook account (I know, shocking) and only visit MySpace for the odd band, I do still see it: there's always the occasional person that feels the need to have as many friends as possible. Is there really any value to it? Not really. But it does help massage the ego.
Having so many friends means they're, well, too busy for you. And that makes them incredibly important, successful people.
Let's go a step further. "Real" friends; i.e. those you meet in person.
It's the same thing. These same people feel the need to have many, as if it's a social RPG and each one gives you 2 extra gold coins earned per day. Well, I guess there is that. They must be swimming in virtual money. And they probably own a virtual Ferrari (which causes virtual global-warming) and look virtually glamourous in the virtual mirror in the virtual mansion in their virtual little world.
It highlights a hole in their lives that needs to be filled with as many human-shaped pegs as they can find. And their egos are inevitably attached to these pegs. No different from men and their big drum sets.
And it's here that our meandering river reaches the bellowing ocean. It's the manifestation of this ego that drove me to the question I will soon ask. A certain person would denigrate the members of a chat forum for their willingness to spend their entire day there, with the logic that s/he has "real" friends.
So here's my question: how much value does actually being able to meet your friend have nowadays?
We're so wired, through these social networking sites, forums, instant messaging --
Hold on. There's a squirrel on my wall cleaning itself. Cute little bugger. Anyway...
-- video calling, regular calling and texting, e-mailing, and snail mail, that for the 14.9 hours you're awake (probably more because you're too busy to sleep) it's possible to be connected to more people at the same time than is possible in the physical sphere. Hell, I'm logged into Mile High Report right now and have an IM window open. I can chat with thousands of Broncos fans from around the world and aforementioned lady friend without leaving this room.
Obviously, we know that already. That's the point of chat forums and the like in the first place, but I think it's sometimes easy to underestimate the value of them.
This is a value judgement, and subjective, of course, but I see the positivity in being able to be in the same room (physically) and yet still would eschew that in favour of an internet connection. Can I find a Broncos fan, say, 'round here? Yeah, sure. But then, I'd be more likely to find a fan of another team, and forced to make nice because s/he'd be the only other person with whom to discuss (American) football. Or, even more likely, it'd be a rugby fan that despises the ostensibly over-padded, stop-start nature of the game. And, again, I'd be forced to go on with the conversation because it's the only way I'd get to discuss the sport without having to type.
These are the sorts of forced friendships that come out of your classroom (and work environment) in the beginning of every year. You're going to be spending the rest of the year with them, so you might as well make a few friends to keep you busy during maths class, making do with your similarities and ignoring your differences.
And the strength of these friendships is clearly evident when you finish school and never talk to them again... well, until you reunite on Facebook (and why you'd want to do this is beyond me).
Through the internet, you can find exactly the type of person you'd feel comfortable talking to on a regular basis and make a friend that isn't forced upon you by virtue of the environment in which you find yourself.
Ultimately, this snob will tell me you don't matter because I can't see your face. And I will completely disagree. What dawned on me when the lightbulb popped over my head was the scope of this reality. That I can talk to a group of Broncos fans that feel the same amount of love for the team as me, and all of them come from their own square on this here globe. I can discuss any scientific topic of my choice with someone right now. I can go on SK right now and tell the moderators just how inept I think they are and set off another flame war. I can go on Prog Archives and discuss any of the 26448 albums listed with any of the 27236 members. And, best of all, I can learn.
I don't need to go to the library. I don't even need to check Wikipedia. I can open my e-mail client and drop someone a message, asking, "Hey, what's your favourite food? What's your religion? What does your country's national music sound like? And what's the government like?"
And I can find out, from a real (no matter that we don't speak face-to-face), living, breathing person, from this specific point on Earth, precisely whether they prefer beef or chicken. I can learn about this country's culture. I can learn about their religion and how it affects them (ironically, I've learned more about Islam from instant messaging than I ever did from my three muslim friends in school). I can discover previously-foreign political concepts. The possibilities, frankly, are endless.
And that's awesome.
Despite all the arguments that come out of the anonymity that the internet provides, the viruses that plague our computers, the possible life-destroying ditties that lurk in the murkier corners, and other general vulgarities, I still believe it can bring us together and jerk out the best of us.
In an ideal world, spurred by this communication revolution (though it started over a century ago), we'd do away with our sectarian way of thinking, and abandon our countless, divisive borders. Thanks to this ability to communicate with so many people from cities I've never even heard of, I'd know so much about the rest of our planet and feel so connected to my neighbour in a different continent, that the word "country" would be meaningless. It'd be a trivial term to describe the arbitrary borders blocking us off from each other. Mere walls. Waiting to be torn down. Then we'd truly be free.
Well, that's the thought, anyway. A fantastical ideal.
Truth is, however, that regardless of how our (humanity's) tale ends, at this point in our history, the next person I meet on the street is no more important than the person reading this sentence right now.