I've been thinking a little bit about the nature of internet friendships and relationships recently.
Of all the people I've 'met' since I started putting things into the internet instead of just taking things out.
Those I'm still in touch with and those who drifted away.
Those who died out in the real world and left a quiet space in the virtual world where I knew them.
Of the communities I've been a part of.
And they really are like nothing else.
All human relationships start with a small amount of information and build their way up from there.
You bump into someone on the street and you're both wearing the same band t-shirt and you might end up a part of that person's life for 10 years based on that one thing that caught your eye and that just happened to be one aspect of a person who had enough in common with you and enough diversity from you to be an awesome friend.
You bump into someone on the internet and there's some of that same initial information gathering but it happens on a slightly different scale and under different conditions.
Whether you roam the internet under a pseudonym or under your real name, with a photo avatar or a screen cap of your favourite character, you are only putting small slices of your personality online at a time.
Whether it is on Twitter, on a blog, as part of a forum community or anywhere else on the internet, it is offering parts of yourself in bite-sized chunks.
If you read something someone has written and it resonates with you, you want to read more.
If it keeps resonating with you and you don't hit a sample that reveals that they believe something that you very much definitely do not, you start to feel a connection with them even before you've exchanged any kind of communication.
Communicating with people you know exclusively online allows you to slowly build a better picture of them, though there's always some things that you'll have trouble getting a feel for without ye olde body language or facial expressions, and there's the fact that when we're presenting ourselves there are always things we push to the fore or shove to the back or simply forget about.
This doesn't mean that internet friendships are any less valid, on the contrary a lot of the internet friendships I've had have been very deep and supportive and I've said things to internet friends that I've not shared with real life meat-space friends just because our dynamic is different.
With text-based communications there are opportunities for miscommunications or personal-bias interpretations but there is also the potential for really deep exchanges.
You get the chance to think things out and lay those thoughts down in a way that they wouldn't come out if spoken.
You get to show a different side to yourself and the see the different sides of many other people.
You can learn a lot about yourself by talking with people online.
You notice habits you have, turns of phrase or tendencies that with reflection reveal things about you that you weren't even aware of.
You can become aware of biases or presumptions that you weren't even aware you held.
You can find the courage to be your online self in the real world or to share your real self in the online world.
Or you can just dick around having a good time without getting so introspective.
Losing touch with someone you only known online can be quite jarring.
If you have no way of contacting them you have no idea if they've stopped updating their website/visiting your community/commenting on photos because they're busy/have lost interest/got a romantic partner and are too busy having crazy sex all the time/forgot their password or if they might be sick or even dead.
When someone drops out of contact you keep checking back, hoping that they're OK, wondering what's up and depending on the situation you may one day find out or you may just have to accept that they're gone and move on.
Sometimes, like regular meat-space friendships, you lose contact with someone because something specific happens - like a conflict - or you finally find that bit of information that makes you realise that the two of you aren't quite as similar as you thought and things gently drift apart.
The perceptions we bring to the internet are pretty much the same ones we bring to real life.
We build a picture of a person based on the information we have and then fill in the gaps.
Depending on the person we may idealise them a bit and then have to revise as we take into account their human flaws and foibles, the same way you do in real life.
It's just easier to hang onto the you-built-version of a person for longer online and that can either facilitate the start of something else, maintain a great friendship or lead to disappointment further down the track when you realise you were wrong.
Getting to know people online is amazing.
Even when it goes wrong it can show you other parts of life and the world that you may not have seen before.
Some of it may be stuff you would rather not have seen but for most people the stuff you treasure makes all that other bullshit worth wading through.