When you think about how many people in your life you’ve spent more time talking to over the internet or on your phone rather than interacting with face to face, it gets a little scary. A lot of us take for granted how easy it is to keep in touch with our family and friends when we’re separated by long distances or long periods of time. We’re so interconnected, so constantly wired into the system, that everything really does feel close enough to touch, and communicating through a screen has become more normal and easier to do with each succeeding generation.
Now I make these obvious points for a reason. It’s funny that we live in such a tech-savvy, globally aware world, and yet a lot of us are still freaked out by the power our phone or computer screens can wield over other people and our relationships. It’s a given that we’ll all exchange numbers, follow Instas, and stalk Facebooks after meeting someone, but if you happen do it in the reverse order, people will probably think you’re just a little bit weird.
We’ve established an unsaid etiquette complete with a list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to interacting online, and violate just one of those things and you’ve doomed yourself to a hoard of judgmental stares and critical questions. There’s still quite a big stigma around online relationships and online friendships in general. The more removed you are from another person’s spheres of interest, the creepier and less acceptable it gets.
Take Tinder, a mainstream example of what happens when you surf the Internet waters for friends (I use the term “friends” very loosely here…). Most people feel more comfortable using it at college than at home, because you’re surrounded by more people your age who have multiple connections to you and your life. Thus they feel more real and more reliable — the safer choice — while at home working with a larger radius, you’re more likely to be encountering people with whom you have less common ground,
A lot of us are scared to venture out of our comfort zones and meet true strangers, because we’ve never been taught how to interact with others online while also protecting ourselves from dangerous situations.
I think people are wrong to approach online relationships with judgment and secrecy. We should be teaching people how to navigate the Internet safely and spot the warning signs of a suspicious profile, rather than pigeonholing online “strangers” as exactly that — strange.
I put strangers in quotations because from what I’ve experienced, some of my more life-changing friendships have arisen through and remained solely on the Internet. These people weren’t from my school and they weren’t from Long Island at all — in fact, some of them were from the opposite side of the world.
Throughout middle school and high school I played a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (an MMORPG), and no, it was not World of Warcraft. During that time, I made friends with dozens of people from all walks of life, and some I got closer to than others. At first I thought that everyone who I talked to was an old creepy man sitting in his mother’s basement doing some sketchy and illegal things with his life, and that everyone was definitely out to get me.
But then I learned how to differentiate between the trustworthy and the more suspicious characters. I started to note how people typed, what language they used, what backstories they relied upon, what their social profiles were like, and through those factors I could judge what kind of person they were when they weren’t playing the game. Understanding how people go about crafting their image via the Internet is a valuable skill, because not only does it keep you safe, but it also gives you insight into what that person’s life is like beyond the digital interface.
I’ve met some extraordinary people while playing that MMORPG, and I’m not ashamed to say that I crafted those friendships in a rather atypical way. My sister and I both played for a while, and on the game we encountered two sisters in their 20s — the sweetest girls you’ll ever meet. Over the years we got closer, particularly my sister and them as I stopped playing in college, and we’ve both learned quite a lot from each other.
The sisters are from Saudi Arabia and were both raised in a conservative Muslim household. One of them is happily engaged, while the other wants to work as a flight attendant and possibly move out of the country. We snapchat them a lot and they snapchat us back, sending us funny selfies of two young makeup-and-hijab-wearing women trying to figure out what makes them happy in life.
The video game we played together was one such activity. It empowered them just as much as it empowered us, because it gave us all an avenue in which we could talk to people from another culture and start to break down the stereotypes we’d been surrounded by in our respective countries.
Even earlier on, I met a guy on the game who hails from California, a place closer to home and a lot more familiar. But again, his life story and the years of communication we’ve shared have resonated with me far longer than a lot of the passing “real world” friendships I’ve had.
My Californian friend’s mother died of cancer several years ago. Since then, he’s been helping to support his siblings both emotionally and financially. On the game, he worked his butt off to become possibly the wealthiest dude on our server — I’m talking virtual Bill Gates status. Then he’d sell chunks of his in-game currency — against the game’s policy — for real life cash to pay his family’s bills and save up for himself. Over time, he made enough money to visit the UK and spend an amazing week with his online love for the first time.
Even that didn’t work out perfectly — the two had couple troubles shortly after and are no longer together. But it was neither a deceptive catfish moment nor a happy ending; it was just real life and how things played out in a sucky relationship.
What I’ve learned through being friends with these online people is that they’re just that — people — and if you can get past the initial fears of making friends on the Internet, you’ll find that your perspective gets a whole lot bigger.
Hannah Kaufman is a rising junior in the College. Confessions of a Closet Geek appears every other Monday at thehoya.com.