YA author and Youtuber John Green says a lot of smart things, but the following quote is one of my absolute favorites:
“I dislike the phrase “Internet friends,” because it implies that people you know online aren’t really your friends, that somehow the friendship is less real or meaningful to you because it happens through Skype or text messages. The measure of a friendship is not its physicality but its significance. Good friendships, online or off, urge us toward empathy; they give us comfort and also pull us out of the prisons of our selves.”
When I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, meeting people on the internet was not something someone did, at least according to any authority I might have asked: the internet meant strangers and predators in chatrooms. (Mind you, even then that was a pretty bad stereotype.) Don’t get me wrong, safety on the internet is INCREDIBLY important, always, but before the internet there were pen pals, fanzines, etc, and out of the desire to connect with people across the world people built digital fan communities online, cementing friendships just as solid as those one might make at school, in the workplace, in a community, or a club. The internet, for all it’s many fantastic uses, is also meant to bring people together over shared interests and passions from across the world. In years past, Livejournal was one of the main hubs, and currently Tumblr is the place to go to connect with people over anything from a fandom to a cause to a band you love. If you like a thing, it’s pretty guaranteed that someone in the tumblr sphere or any other sort of social media site will be just enthusiastic. Probably even multiple people!
Fanfiction communities such as fanfic.net and AO3 are intertwined with that as well, and it was through that where I met my friend Alex from the UK. She left me a review, and as is a habit I try to keep, I responded. Then she responded, then I responded again. Then I read her fanfiction, and little did I realize that spiraling out from that would be lengthy emails, Skype sessions, voice memos, letters in the mail, and countless texts via Whatsapp. I didn’t realize that someone I’d never been in the same physical room with could know me so well, didn’t realize that I felt I could trust her and tell her anything I’d tell any of my friends who lived nearby, or even in the same time zone. We were similar but different in all the best ways, and a love of Les Miserables and it’s young revolutionaries had brought us together across countries and time zones and the Atlantic Ocean. She might not have been in the same room except via webcam, but she could make me laugh on the most stressful of days, and that was inevtiable. We share a love of our fandom, the story, and it’s characters, and that’s something that will never change, but our friendship grew out from there; we flailed over musical theater together, we talked about the movies we saw (debated over the Hunger Games, raved over all the Marvel movies) we got emotional over books (The Fault in Our Stars) we read our favorite poems over voice memo. We talked about life and shared our secrets and our problems. We got deep into social justice and political issues. It was everything that best kind of friendship should be. Our similarities shone and our differences melded. When we met, she was finishing up her master’s in architecture, and I was starting my first full year out of graduate school, trying to make my way working as a full time librarian in D.C., and we traveled the path of beginning our adult lives together, trying to navigate how exactly to be a grown-up person because no matter our different countries, we shared that experience which was simultaneously a struggle and an adventure.
It’s been a rough and tumble few months in my life; there have been changes, both good and bad. Losses and gains. Moments of being overwhelmed by painful thoughts of the past. Some days I felt great, but on others I struggled to stand firm with myself, with what I stood for and who I was, which was the opposite of how I’ve felt for most of the past two years. I felt like I’d finally been able to stand before the world unashamed and unafraid, and then suddenly, a little fear set in. I was, in other words, a bit shaken. Being shaken down to the core of who I am was no pleasant experience, especially when even on my darkest days, I’m able to remember who I am. So when I got the news that Alex was coming in late March to visit, I was beyond thrilled. She was staying for a week, and after a little convincing by her and my roommate both, I agreed to take a few days off from work for a jaunt up to New York City. As a surprise, she also bought tickets to see Newsies, and that was the ACTUAL best.
In the preceding week I could think of little else, and pushed all my other anxieties away: my friend was coming, and that was all that mattered. Live in the moment, I told myself, and as I stood there in Dulles airport waiting for her to come out of customs, that was exactly what I did. The words of the woman chatting next to me faded away as I saw Alex round the corner, quieting to something even less than white noise. We both dropped our bags with a clack on the floor, running at each other and throwing ourselves into a hug. I’m sure people were staring at us, but I couldn’t have cared less.
“You’re real,” I said with a laugh, but just a little overcome with the intesity of emotion I was feeling. “That’s so great.”
Who knew that my decision to write a Les Mis fanfic could result in this very moment?
Suddenly, somehow, there was my friend I’d met online just about a year ago in the same room, hugging me and answering my comment in the English accent I now knew so well. She was warm, she was whole, and she’d just traveled across an ocean to see me. The meaning in that struck me like a forceful, but wonderful blow, knocking the life into me. She was no different in person than she was via Skype or email. She was just as fantastic, and shone even brighter, like an actual ray of human sunshine. Every moment with her was an adventure as we roamed around DC and then New York. I did things I’d never done before. I stayed in a hostel (it was the private room/bathroom kind, but still a hostel!). I ventured out of the most frequented parts of Manhattan and down to Alphabet City and had coffee in the East Village. I walked to the start of the Brooklyn Bridge. I went to a midtown bar at midnight and tried Japanese beer. I ate pancakes in a diner on Broadway while the wait staff sang showtunes all around me. I laughed often and much. I spilled my heart a couple of times. I LIVED. And as I sat watching Newsies, a show I’ve wanted to see for months, I not only got the life knocked back into me, I got the me knocked back into me. The fight. The optimism. The hope. It had never gone away, and I hadn’t forgotten, it had just been so hard to grasp, and as I listened to the newsboys sing one of the big numbers “The World Will Know” and watched Alex grin and subtly fist pump beside me, I felt my hand grasp tightly over those things, my belief flooding through me again. When things are hard, when things are difficult, well, that’s all the more reason to hang on. Here, have a listen to this song from Newsies, because it will make you feel like you can take on anything:
The modern world has some incredible technologies that can link people who otherwise never would have met, people who seemed almost fated to meet. It’s always seemed strange to me that there seems a weird stigma sometimes against meeting friends online when online dating grows with every passing day. Why on earth should I not connect with people who share my interests and my utter nerdiness just because they live across the world and I don’t see them on a daily basis? I talk to them, I share things with them every day. A kind of domestic intimacy shared across wi-fi connections and land mass and oceans. How was work? How was that movie you saw? How was hanging out with your friends?
Friendship, for all it’s wonders and joys, does not get NEARLY enough credit for how seriously epic it is. It’s one of the things that keeps me going when I feel like I can’t get back up, that hand in mine when I’m walking into the unknown, it’s laughter and light and companionship. It’s sharing my emotions and ranting excitment when I’ve read a book I loved or seen an awesome movie. (Side note: go see Captain America The Winter Soldier RIGHT NOW.) Or if not sharing it, listening. It’s enthusiasm for each other’s passions and each other’s success. For each other’s happiness.
As Steve Rogers says to Bucky Barnes in the latest Captain America movie, “I’m with you till the end of the line.”
As Victor Hugo says of the young revolutionaries in Les Mis, “they formed a sort of family by force of friendship.”
As C.S. Lewis says, friendship gives value to survival.
And in the past year or so, the internet has added to my circle of wonderful friends, helping me meet people from England, New Zealand, Canada, and my very own Washington, D.C., and I think that’s pretty freaking awesome. Not to mention how much easier it’s made keeping in good contact with friends who have moved across the country to California or across the world to Rome and to Prague.
I’ve made friends all over the world, and even my very tight knit writer’s group here in DC has it’s origins on the internet in the forum of the National Novel Writing Month forums and the chance decision to go to a write in at a local Dunkin Donuts with strangers. Now, they are some of my closest friends.
So in the end, the internet has given me an enormous amount in the way of friends, whether I’ve met them in person or not. They’re all amazing, and my life has changed monumentally for having them all in it. I would certainly not be the same.
So good on you, internet. Good on you. And as Katherine Plumber says in her song “Watch What Happens” in the Newsies stage show, “give these kids and me the brand new century/and watch what happens.”
Watch what happens, because if you’re ever feeling lonely, just think: a friend could be the click of a button away.