Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Anonymous, asynchronous friendships

This month’s IndieWeb Carnival is hosted by Manuel Moreale who chose a brilliant topic of digital relationships.

topic for the month of February is going to be “Digital relationships”. The meaning of the topic is intentionally vague but I can think of at least three ways to interpret it. The first is probably the most obvious: relationships between us human beings that are lived primarily—or entirely—on the digital world. The second is the relationship between us and the digital world itself. The third is the growing trend of people having relationships with digital creations such as AI fiends, boyfriends and girlfriends.

By the way, if you don’t yet know Manu, I highly recommend his great blog and especially his fantastic weekly People & Blogs newsletter where each Friday he shares an interview with someone who writes a blog. I’ve discovered so many great blogs through it.

My dear friends

Some of my best friendships are with people I have never met or seen.

I know them by a nickname and we’ve been writing messages for two decades.

When I was young, I wasn’t very social kid. I was shy, introverted and not like all the cool kids in the school. But somewhere in the early years of this millennium, I got broadband Internet and joined the Internet Relay Chat or IRC.

It was a magical place for me. You had your nickname and the discussion happened asynchronously and anonymously. It meant that we perceived each other through our written communication only. For a shy guy with a weird voice, it was a safe haven of sorts. I could discuss and argue with others and I was treated based on the merits of my thoughts and communication and not by my looks or my background.

A written, asynchronous communication allowed me to think about things and craft my messages with more care and I didn’t have to think on my feet in situations that normally would have been intimidating.

Same happened with discussion forums. I learned to become quite a writer by spending countless hours on different chat rooms and forums discussing topics that I cared about.

In those discussions so many great, life-long friendships were forged. Some of my dearest friends these days are people I’ve met online – and some of them I still haven’t met in person. I don’t necessarily know what they look like or what their real names are. But I consider them great friends because we talk daily or at least weekly online.

Others, I’ve gotten to know in real life. And it’s a wonderful sensation when you meet someone for the first time in a pub and the usual “getting to know a stranger” feeling isn’t there at all. We would continue the discussions we’ve had for years without a hitch.

Over the years, I’ve grown more socially confident and become a bit of a people person to my own surprise. I’ve also noticed that the diversity of my friend group has diminished through that. In real life, I end up in discussions with people who are more similar to me. Usually technology oriented, or maybe interested in Pokemon or learning and quite often my age.

In IRC and the forums, I became friends with people I would have never ended up in the same discussion with in the real life. Some were much older than me, some younger. People who lived in different parts of the country or world and ended up working in completely different fields and living a very different life than me.

I kinda miss that.

My life these days are much more focused on professional interests. The online spaces I spend time in are usually related to software development or community building. And don’t get me wrong, I love hanging out with people who share my passions. And as an adult, I’m getting more out of the international online friendships too since I always have some friends to hang out with, no matter where I travel in the world. But I’m less likely to become good friends with an artist, an actor or a health care worker than I used to be in back in the day.

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