Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Please don't tell me my friends aren't real.

Blogging was not on my list of things to do today but, as noted in my previous post, I'm easily distracted and I have difficulty sticking to my 'get it done' priorities.

Today's distraction is due the large number of references I've come across in my Twitter feed and Google Reader this week referring to'real life' as opposed to 'online' with the assertion being that the people you meet and communicate with online are somehow different, or the relationships with them are less valid or less important than the relationships you have with people in your pysical space. I'm used to that sort of misunderstanding and assumption from folks who aren't internet connected but it comes as a bit of a shock to me when I read it in my social media pages.

I firmly believe that this discrimination between on and offline worlds is one of the greatest barriers we face in promoting global unity and providing 21st century communication in schools.

Frankly, I'm tired of being told I should spend less time on the computer and more time talking to 'real' people. I'm over making excuses for providing my students with the opportunity to broaden their outlook by communicating with kids in other parts of the world. Here's the thing. Online is real. The people you meet there are real. The friendships you make there are real. The learning that takes place there is real.

I have friends I made in high school. I have friends at work, friends I met at parties, at mother's groups, while playing sport or because we've worked on committees together.I also have friends I've made online.The only difference between each group is their context. The commonality is that they are all my friends.

I love the fact that I live in a time when I can connect with people all over the world at anytime of the day. Given the relative isolation of my small country town, if I were to confine myself to only meeting and befriending the people I can see face to face, then my choices would be pretty limited and so would the opportunities of my students.

I've only been part of the Twittersphere for a short time but I've been collaborating with other teachers via the internet for almost fifteen years. I started my collaborative journey at TeachersNet where I met an amazing group of people with whom I became firm friends. Subsequently, I met some of them in a physical space, many I have spoken to on the phone and some have remained 'text' based. They are all real. The conversations we have are real. The support and advice we offer each other is real.

At Christmas, one of my old Tnet friends sent me two tins of canned pumpkin so I can make that wonderful American delicacy with  ingredients that aren't available here. That pie (despite my poor culinary skills), will taste every bit as good as if it were hand delivered in a checkered tea towel because the sentiment behind the sending of it is just the same as the jar of home made cookies from my neighbour next door.They are both symbols of friendship.

I know there are cases where people have masqueraded as someone they are not on the internet. They are frauds but it's not the internet who makes them so. I've had physical meetings with quite a few frauds in my lifetime and while it was easier to discern their age and gender because I could 'see' them, their motives were just as well hidden as an online fraudster.We need to teach our kids how to identify genuine friendships and genuine people, in ALL their spaces.

It's time we stopped referring to online friendships as something different , strange or less important than the friendships we form in physical space.The world needs to be more connected; we need to feel more like the citizens of the world that we are, rather than barricading and segregating ourselves into minority (or majority) groups based on race or location or social strata or age. Online friendships promote empathy and cultural understanding. They provide opportunities for collaboration and consultation with other like minded individuals and they overcome the isolation of geography or circumstance.Online communities are just like any other community. They provide friendship and support and a sense of belonging.

I guess the most compelling proof of the reality of my online friends is that I married one of them. Back in the day when my online presence was just a nickname with no photo or profile, we formed a friendship based on humour and shared interests and common beliefs about teaching and the world in general. Given that we came from different decades and different countries, it's doubtful our paths would have crossed in any other space. And yet, here we are, twelve years on, still sharing common beliefs about teaching and the world and bringing up our 7 yr old who is absolute living proof that our 'virtual' relationship is pretty damned real!

Are online friendships part of your real world?


  1. THANK YOU. It's nearly every day (or at the very least, every week) that I find myself defending the time I spend online sharing with my friends. I have met many of them face-to-face, but just as many are still online only. I don't think of them as any less... in fact, some of my online friends are more willing to help and share with me than people I've known in person for years.

    I'm tired of letting other people dictate to me their definition of what a friend is and isn't. I get to decide who my friends are, and that definitely includes my online friends. Period.

    Great post. I'll be sharing it often. :-)

  2. Nicely written! I have more in common with my online friends than I do with my face to face friends. Most of us share the same profession, have similar beliefs about how to teach, and passion for learning.

    I am sure there was a similar backlash to the telephone and letter writing too :)

  3. Another fabulous post Anne - I found a saying the other day "I love my computer - some of my best friends are there" and that remains true for me. What is super exciting, is when you meet some of your "online" friends for a coffee, or you recognise them at a conference. I cherish all my friendships equally and I will continue to spend time as much time on my computer as I want to.

  4. Thanks for your comments everyone.
    It was only when I counted back the years to my first online friendships that I realised just how long I have had to feel defensive about them! Now, rather than feeling defensive I think I feel sorry for the people who haven't taken advantage of this wonderful way to make new friends.
    Like Michelle & Wm I discovered very early on that I have much more in common with some of the friends I've met online and almost to a person they are by nature very sharing & kind hearted people.
    Marg, you're one of the few net people I've met in person before I met you online.I like you in both spaces and I'm really enjoying the opportunity to get to know you better via our shared interests and projects :-)

  5. Anne,

    What an extremely well written post!

    I too am so tired of the argument that online relationships are "unhealthy". It is a 21st century way of communicating and it's so funny the number of people in the population who are in denial of that!

    In my grade two class, we refer to the kids and teachers we blog and skype with as our "friends" and I'm glad I can help my students realise this from a young age.

    Like others said, you do have a lot more in common with some "online" friends than "offline" friends. I know so many teachers online who really inspire me and I'm so glad I "met" them.

    I found when meeting people face-to-face who I knew online through Twitter and blogs it was really better than expected. Our friendship really took off and we felt like we knew each other so well (which I guess we did!)

    I think the next time someone tries to present this tired argument, I will direct them to your post!

  6. Thanks Kathleen,
    I've had the same experience with the online people I've met face to face. Without exception they have been the same awesome people offline as they are online.
    I'm pretty sure that most people who deny the value of online communication have never actually tried it.

  7. This should be compulsory information made available to all parents at the start of every year! An inspirational read.

  8. Thanks Kane
    Not sure about that. I'm always afraid of being burnt at the stake when I tell this story :-0