I started blogging in March, 2003. I was a sophomore in college, and I thought I was getting in on the tail end of the blogging fad. My blog was the first place where I had an internet footprint. I didn’t blog under my name back then, and I was careful to protect my identity. I didn’t know about search engines, and so I did blog about others using their first and last names. My first blog didn’t even have the option for comments, and I didn’t think about an online presence being a way to form friendships or develop a new type of community.

One day while driving back to campus from a visit home, I noticed something interesting on the side of Highway 26: a bouquet of red roses. I pulled over and picked them up, curious about the story. When I got back to my dorm, I made up a little story about the roses being sent to me by an “internet boyfriend” that I named Jonathan or Jason or Jared or something like that. My friends and I laughed and elaborated on the story until my hall director pulled me aside and said, “I don’t want to be too overbearing, but please be careful with online relationships. You don’t really know who you’re dealing with when you only know someone from the internet.”

I was able to reassure her that I didn’t, in fact, have an internet boyfriend named Jonathan or Jason or Jared or something like that. I told her I didn’t have any internet friends, let alone an internet boyfriend.

A lot has changed in the ten years since I started blogging. I’ve never had an internet boyfriend any more serious than Jonathan or Jason or Jared or whatever, but I do have friends who I’ve met online. Not just casual friends or “internet friends,” but friends.

Pile Of Monkeys (one of my friends from the internet) wrote a post for Persephone this week about removing the stigma of internet friendships. She says:

We’ve been through marriages, career crises, family drama, health problems, pregnancies, dating woes, culinary adventures, fashion emergencies, and every other piece of daily life that you can imagine. We’ve been on vacation together. We meet up when one of us is traveling near any of the others. These are the people I turn to first when I need advice or a shoulder to cry on. And I’m supposed to consider them not to be “real” friends because we didn’t meet in high school or at a bar or through work? No thanks. These people are my friends, not my “friends.”

I know exactly what she’s talking about, because I’ve lived it.

In the past few years, I have become part of an incredible community of women (and a very select few men) who interact daily online. I remember my initial hesitance to add these internet-friends to my real-life Facebook account, linked with my name and location, and then the way that my daily internet experience changed once I gave in and realized that these folks are some of my dearest friends.

Like POM, I’ve shared just as many memories and experiences with these friends as the ones I know in real life. We’ve perfected the art of internet parties (baby showers and engagement parties, for example), where we congregate online and play games using GoogleDocs and folks have their own drinks and get progressively funnier over the course of the evening. I’ve walked these friends through scary situations and hilarious ones, through divorces and weddings and toxic parents and awkward ex-boyfriend encounters and the deaths of family and friends. We’ve developed our own lingo, and we have a shared history that is just as real and valid as the folks I’ve become friends with “in real life.” Last year, I helped raise over $20,000 for a friend whose husband was dying. These are the people I have gone to first when things have gone well or gone wrong.

About a year ago, I started meeting my internet friends in person. When Chalupa and I planned a vacation for last May, our first order of business was to figure out how to spend time with our friend Carolyn, whom we wouldn’t know without the internet. I’ve met up with internet folks in Dallas, Chicago, Boston, Maine, Michigan, and Phoenix.

The internet does not exist in a separate world than reality. The internet is a part of our reality. For every drawback to online friendships (a lack of face-to-face interaction, the ability of some people to present themselves as different from who they really are), there are benefits (no restrictions based on physical location or time for getting together, the gift of being able to type one’s words thoughtfully instead of trying to find the words verbally).

Pile of Monkeys says it like this:

The value of my friendships can be found in what we mean to each other, how we talk, what we give back and forth, not where or how we met or the fact that such a large chunk of society feels like we’re oddballs for being “online friends.” These days, the Internet is our workplace, our bar, our social club, and our library. It’s where we spend our time, where we learn things, and how we entertain ourselves. Why shouldn’t it be where we make friends, too?

I really can’t put it much better than that. I value my face-to-face friends immensely, but I’m certainly not willing to call them my “real” friends while regulating the internet friends to some other list. After all, if one group is real, does that make the other group fake? I value all of my friends, and that includes the ones I’ve met and come to know online.

My life, thanks to the internet

My life, thanks to the internet