A few days ago, I found out a Facebook friend of a friend had passed away. He was in his very early sixties and I only knew him from a couple of exchanges we’d had whilst commenting on a mutual friend’s post. I remember we once discussed blogging as both he and I had attempted to write a travel blog. But I will remember him most for his witty comments on many of my friend’s statuses. And now he’s gone. When I heard this sad news, I felt very out of sorts, I just couldn’t settle that day; like a cat on hot bricks. Somebody I knew just a tiny bit…albeit barely at all – was not around anymore. Those amusing comments would no longer be forthcoming and I felt a sense of…loss. But part of me couldn’t help feeling I was muscling in on his real family and friend’s grief. I reiterate, I did not know this chap; I’d never met him, we weren’t actually Facebook friends per se and I didn’t even know what he looked like (his profile pictures were primarily of him in the seventies). But I wasn’t alone, other Facebook users who also only knew him via a mutual Facebook friend seemed to be feeling this loss equally. Why did I feel that way? Why did any of us strangers feel that way? And one of these strangers summed it up for me very nicely; the world is changing. Friends no longer need to be people you’ve met face-to-face or have physically seen and conversed with. The virtual world has created a whole new subset of friends we will probably never actually meet in real life but in some way have managed to become very important to us.
Another social media platform I use is Google +. G+ hasn’t really taken off in Britain – in fact a year ago, I’d never even heard of it. I only discovered it when I was researching other ways to promote my book and blog (and because Google + is owned by Google [obviously], anything you advertise there rates higher on the Google search engine, supposedly). So in the early days, I had no idea what I was supposed to do; I didn’t have any friends on G+ as, like I say, it isn’t widely used in my immediate circles. I did the sensible thing and joined lots of blogging and writer’s circles, posted my blogs and commented on other’s posts. In a very short time, I had become a part of a blogging community; chatting to bloggers from all over the world on a daily basis. There was a blog community member who was a fellow Brit (and there are precious few of us on G+ really) named Woody. He wrote an entertaining, observational blog which focused on his daily life. He was also very fond of putting together lists; 10 Ways to Make a Lasting Marriage, Top Ten Movies – that kind of thing. But one day, Woody just disappeared. Both his blog and G+ account were closed – just like that. Myself and other members of our little blogging fraternity were naturally very perturbed by this. We could not find him on Facebook or Twitter or we would have made contact through those channels just to see what was wrong. But he was nowhere to be found. And again, I fretted about this for days and days. What had happened to Woody? A family crisis? A very unpleasant piece of feedback that completely put him off writing (he was always very vocal about his lack of confidence in his work which was a shame as he was very good)? Had he just decided blogging was too much like hard work (well, I can definitely identify with that!)? We never found out. To this day, he hasn’t returned. I’m only a blogger of eight months standing, so I haven’t completely learned the ropes. Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time. Maybe bloggers come and go; they’re all over your timeline like flies on a dog-turd one day (in a good way) and then the next they disappear like a puff of smoke. Never to be seen or heard of again.
One of my other blogging friends has named this practice as, ‘committing bloggacide’ (I wish I’d invented that – but I didn’t. I did invent #sharesies though. I think…). He’s a blogger with ten years experience so must have seen this kind of thing a fair bit before. But how depressing is that? To have established a small band of friends, a community, a gang – and then one or more of those members just withdraws without a trace. I’m starting to see it happen more frequently too – I hope those people are just taking a break and will be back in the fold soon. But who knows, maybe the next bloggacide will be mine. Maybe that little thumbnail picture you see at the top of my posts just won’t be on your timeline one day (oh, and by the way – those of you who don’t know me in real life, that slightly off-focus thumbnail photo is me on one of my better days. Usually I look as though I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards [but I sensibly don’t use those photos]. And as an aside, whoever coined the phrase ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’ was a genius. I mean, try to really visualise it – to be dragged through a hedge forwards would make you unkempt enough, but backwards? Oh yes, that hedge did a number on me. But then, that’s the beauty of the Internet, isn’t it?).
So are our virtual friends really our friends? Admittedly, many of my internet friends don’t even know my real name – but that’s part and parcel of being a writer. In the past, having on-line friends may have appeared a rather sad, nerdy, pathetic endeavour (pathetic? Moi?) – but not anymore with technology taking over our lives the way it has. We all have virtual friends now. But if you had the opportunity to meet one of your on-line chums, would you? Should that be the ‘acid test’ of friendship? But who says we even need an acid test (hang on, that might have been me…)? Maybe these people are your friends by the sheer virtue of the fact that you converse with them every other day (possibly more than your flesh-and-blood pals in some cases). And maybe you will never set eyes on your virtual friends in the entirety of your life but does that lessen their value? I don’t think so. Some of my best Facebook friends are people I haven’t seen in 20-30 years and possibly never will see again, but they can be some of the most prolific ‘commenters’ and our on-line friendship has become more meaningful than our previous real-life friendship ever was. And without the internet, those friendships would be lost to me.
Anyway, I suppose what I’ve concluded is, every interaction is important – be it real or virtual. Some of your virtual friends understand your current journey better than anyone (like bloggers and writers fully appreciate me taking a stab at being an author perhaps – because they’re in the same boat). Sometimes you can only get the very essence of a person by the things they put down on paper; the blogs they write or the statuses that they post, the innermost workings of people’s minds – things they would never say out loud. Yet some of your real-life friends may remain the only people you can turn to and really confide in – they know you warts and all (not just your on-line persona). But every friendship has its place. Every friendship has a function. The world is changing. And so has friendship. Maybe, if I knew you in my past, I will never actually see you again (and like I say, with my hedge-hair, you’re probably better off). Almost certainly, if you know me only virtually, I will never actually get to meet you in person (don’t forget the hedge-hair, I’m doing you a favour here). And maybe one day you and I will no longer interact or converse anymore at all. But it was a blast while it lasted.