here be dragons – friends from the internet

A lot of the people1 reading this probably don’t even need to be told what I’m going to write in my first post, because it’s – in a way – about them.

Internet people. Internet acquaintances. Internet friends.

And here goes. Even today2 people like me will get looked at in a slightly weird way if you tell them something like “a friend I met on the internet”. I’ve occasionally tried to avoid that phrase when telling things regarding those people, because it’s often easier than facing skepticism  when you just want to give some context to something that has happened.

To a lot of people out there, the internet is a tool. They use it to buy books or movies, plan their holiday, copy their homework from wikipedia, watch cat videos or even catch up with old friends, relatives, colleagues or even people they met on their holiday. “Real life people”.

Granted, a lot of these people are from that generation that did not grow up with the internet, but there are as many younger than me who hold the same views.

The internet is full of phonies, liars, criminals, or worse. You can’t meet real people out there. You can’t make REAL friends out there. Dating websites3 don’t count.

HERE BE DRAGONS

Well, first of all, even if most people who know me probably wouldn’t think of me as “shy”, I am not the kind of guy who just goes out and “meets new people”. For some reason I have trouble going to a pub or bar and just randomly strike up conversations with people I’ve never met in my life. I don’t go dancing or to the village fair to meet new strangers. I’m social enough, I love having company and if I find some common ground to connect with someone, if there’s a certain spark, I might even be talking your ears off before I realize it.
If it doesn’t happen that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like you, it’s just that I often need a little warming up.

The internet makes that a lot easier for me. Whether it’s the old web chat rooms, IRC, forums and starting earlier this year twitter, I have had little trouble finding likeminded people of all age groups and various nationalities online and met quite a few in person, but more of that later.

So I wonder, what makes people think that “internet people” aren’t real people as well? Why is it okay to go to a pub, disco, barn dance just to “meet people”, but not into the forum of a gaming community, a chatroom on IRC or join twitter not just to stalk Justin Bieber but maybe have some fun random encounters and maybe even make friends and meet people?

“Oh, but that man/woman from the internet could abduct, kill, say bad things to or even rape you!”

Yeah, like that’s never happened to anyone who’s gone to the pub on a Friday night.

I’m not saying that you should throw yourself at the first person to suggest you meet up  in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. For heaven’s sake, trust your guts, make sure someone knows where you are, have some basic safety measures. Whether you go to the pub or to your first meeting of your new internet community.
I pride myself on having a pretty good judgement of people and I probably also got lucky with the people I met, but I’m willing to bet that in most internet communities you will find people that are looking out for each other. More likely than at any local watering hole.

But whatever reasons you give to people, there’s always some who will disbelieve or remain skeptical. So maybe take a moment and think about what awesome social things have happened to you that you have to thank the internet for.

Here’s my list, in chronological order, of the parts the internet played in creating my social life and a large part of who I am. Well, the parts I remember or was able to reconstruct from my picture collection.

In 1997 still in school I first entered a certain webchat, met a girl, and after a couple of days of chatting, we decided4 we’d start writing letters. We’re still friends, see each other occasionally5

2003
I became a regular in a webchat and joined a web radio6 that was based in that chat. I am still a member, albeit inactive. There I met people from throughout the country and beyond I still count among my best friends.

It’s also where I met my first girlfriend. It didn’t last very long, but I also met her best friend at the time, who became one of my best friends and our friendship continues to this day. She got me into Doctor Who two years ago.

I went to my first community meeting7 and started meeting up with people I’d never seen before.

2004
The webchat and webradio became a circle of friends. I went to three community meetings that lasted a whole weekend.8

Also some coworkers got me to join a large-scale browser game where I met people from all over the world via the game itself. I quit after a while but I stuck to the IRC network people organized their tactics in.

2005
More of the same things of course. The highlight of the year: An American from said game I met in IRC had become something between an acquaintance and a friend. He was married to an Italian and they were planning to marry a second time for her family which still lived in Italy. And I got invited. Which was pretty exciting. But as his wife put it: “You spend so much time with these people online, if he’s  a friend, why not?”
That was a first for me but I actually didn’t even think twice about it. We’d spent hours chatting about pretty much everything, and it wasn’t the first time I got to meet internet people and their friends and family. So I flew into Rome, got picked up by his wife at the airport and actually had lunch with her family before I even met him. It was eerie but they were very welcoming, and ‘lo, there was nothing awkward or weird about it. Look, he’s human just like us. ;-)

Also in 2005 I started writing product reviews and parodies for a large community and product review website. I don’t write for that website anymore, but I’ve found friends there as well, there’s a meeting once a year and it never fails to be awesome.

2006
I visited my cousin in Manchester, England and met up with several friends from IRC, two of which I joined on a train to Newcastle where we’d go see Iron Maiden and share a hotel room.

2007
Apart from the usual community meetings, a friend I met through the web radio and seen in person twice for a weekend each chatted me up on an instant messenger.
“Hey, what are you doing?” – “Oh, just checking trips to the United States, but the single room surcharge is offputting” – “When are you planning to go?”
We went there together and had great fun when people assumed we were either a couple or siblings until we explained that we were just “Internet friends”. Oh, and I also met up with an internet friend in Las Vegas.

2008
I paid a visit to a friend and her husband in the UK. I met her via an internet forum that belonged to a webcomic both of us were reading. To this day we’re friends and I’ve visited on two more occasion. I’ll miss her 30th birthday next year because I’m going to be on a road trip along the US East Coast, visiting … yup, internet friends. Friends.

2009
The year I met my current ex.9 We’d talked before, online, on the webradio, had a few phone calls, and then we hit it off on the anual community meeting of the web radio. Basically camping, a day of team building games, bbq, board games and all that. Quite a few relationships began that weekend. Oh, remember the best friend of my first girlfriend? Yup, met her again after years, and while the relationship with my girlfriend didn’t last, that friendship made it through ten years and two relationships, still counting.

2010
Things were a little quieter on the internet front, but my girlfriend and I visited a lot of common friends that year

2011
We’d moved in together, but the relationship ended in April. I met up with more internet people that year, but the highlight was the trip to Ireland. I had booked that for me and my suddenly ex. Cancelling the trip would’ve been rather expensive, but my friend who I toured the states with was available, and even though we hadn’t met up even once since 2007 we just continued where we’d left.
So the relationship ended, and suddenly I had more time on my hands, so besides connecting to my internet family I also started up playing an MMO10, getting to know awesome new people, becoming friends with them.
Another friend had vanished from the internet for months due to financial and internet connection issues and there were dozens of people trying to reach him. We’d all feared the worst because of what we knew about his medical background, but everything turned out right.

2012
I took a round trip around southern England. Basically I flew into London, rented a car and first visited MMO people, then my webcomic friend who got me hooked on BBC’s Sherlock, and after that someone from IRC who I dragged around London for a day.

2013
You thought nothing could top the wedding? Well, it certainly will be one of the all-time-highlights of my internet bio, but it turns out that one of they guys from the MMO lives on a tiny island in the South Pacific, and I’d gotten a travel voucher for my 10th anniversary at my company the previous summer. Long story short, banter happened, I got invited, booked three days later and then dragged a friend and coworker 20.000km across the globe, drove 10 days around New Zealand and took a plane to spend a week in paradise and still have more or less constant contact to him/his family.

In the same year I went to Cardiff with two internet friends11 and a boyfriend, we met very nice people via the couchsurfing organisation and got to see the Doctor Who Experience.

Also I joined twitter, and I’m pretty sure that at one point I’ll start meeting up with people I’ve found there. Dammit, if I had a teleporter, I’d probably spend more time buzzing around as a cloud of highly energized molecules than at home.

As to next year, I’m looking forward to meet all kinds of internet friends, from a gaming community, friends I’ve talked to on IRC from 3 to 7 years and who knows who else?

Hey, maybe YOU know me and you want to visit? I’m sure we can arrange something.

So. Yeah, I guess the internet is full of phonies and it’s not worth spending any more time there than it takes to order a book or watch a few cat videos on youtube.

TL;DR
The internet is awesome, there’s great people to discover and a lot of them just mean the world to me.

I don’t even distinguish between “internet” and “other” friends anymore, unless I have to explain where I met certain people.

Thanks for bearing with me, this got longer than I thought. And I mean every word.

Olli

Footnotes
  1. Funny, my first blog post, I don’t even know if anyone will actually read this, but I start with “A lot of the people” []
  2. or maybe more than ever? []
  3.  Never used any, not that I mind people using them, but I kinda stick to the regular social networks. For now. ;-) []
  4. well I suggested []
  5. Once a year or every two years, I’d say, depending. []
  6. Just a bunch of people who enjoyed streaming music to a bunch of friends and talking nonsense. I’ve been a show host and member of the organisatorial commitee in various positions, including leading the whole kindergarden []
  7. actually chaperoning said best friend []
  8. basically a group of thirty 16 to 40-year olds went camping, including bbq and board games, nobody killed anyone. Amazing, huh? []
  9. Is that the way you say it? Huh. []
  10. something something spaceships []
  11. one of them the girl I met via my first girlfriend []