Ten years or so ago, I was very active on a number of closed forums. I was lucky to be part of that moment when they were active and the energy was vibrant. I made a good many friends, people with whom I became close and some of my dearest and most enduring friendships were born online and within those forums. Other friendships have grown online since then and I have often wondered about the process.
When you meet someone in the virtual world, you have no idea at all who they really are. There may well be clues in where you come across them or what they write, but you do not know…not for sure. A good con man is always plausible and there are plenty of those out there. Yet there are people with whom you just seem to ‘click’ regardless. They become friends. Should you meet, there is always the worry that the online persona will not be the same and the friendship will be overshadowed by the new and less acceptable reality. Yet, having met very many of my ‘online friends’ in person, I have yet to meet one who was substantially different from their online presence.
There are a number of reasons for that; many people find it easier to reveal themselves through the relative anonymity of the written word. If you are half a world away, you can open your heart to a friend without embarrassment. You already know that you are never likely to meet… except, that quite often you do, regardless of the distance. It may take years, you may have become very close, but often those friendships are ‘tested’ by an encounter in ‘real life’ and once that happens, the bonds grow ever closer.
Whether you meet or not, some online friendships go deep. It is as if, having created this virtual world for ourselves, we have developed a sixth sense that can assess and understand more than appears on the surface. Perhaps we have learned to read between the lines in a more literal sense, picking up emotive cues from the choice of words and phrases in a similar manner to our ability to read the subtle, unspoken signs of body language face to face.
Once the friendship is established, we learn to trust our online friends, just as we would if we met them in person. We may share our joys with them, our sorrows and troubles. We may ask, listen and even take their advice. Yet, unless we have met them face to face, we still have no real idea who they truly are. We simply accept that the disembodied ‘voice’ at the other end of the line exists and is what we believe it to be. In many ways, an online friendship is an act of faith.
When I was a child and got into the inevitable scrapes with friends, my mother would always come out with the classic, “… and if he told you to jump off a cliff, would you?” We would not act upon any advice we were given by that unseen voice if it went against our own perception of reality, nor against our deepest beliefs or principles. We would listen to a friend, but any subsequent actions that we took would be filtered through our own personality, understanding and common sense. We would be far more careful with that advice if it came from a new ‘friend’ that were it to be given by an old and trusted companion. When you have known someone for years, online and off, looked into their eyes and hearts and know you can trust them, you will value their opinion, knowing they have your best interests at heart…but those same filters will still be applied before you act.
There is another disembodied voice, an unseen friend, to which we all have a direct line. It is the voice of something that always has our best interests at heart and knows us better than we think we know ourselves. It sees beyond the masks we wear to face the world or assume for our roles within it. It knows every moment we have ever lived, how we have felt and what we have done. You can call it intuition or ‘gut feeling’, you might think of it as the guardian angel at your shoulder or see it as the voice of the soul. It doesn’t really matter what label you give it… it will whisper anyway. It is the voice of a closer friend than any and we very often fail to hear it, let alone listen, until it takes on the role of ‘conscience’…that one we all hear, whether we listen or not.
We are capable of developing a sixth sense about our online contacts, whose face, life story and personality could all be fabricated for all we know, yet we seem to often fail to use the senses we already have and listen to the advice from within. If we can find the courage to take a leap of faith online… we should be able to have just as much faith in ourselves.