I wanted to speculate a little more on my thoughts pertaining to the movie You've Got Mail, which as I said has recently become one of my favorite movies. In the movie, Joe Fox (played by Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan) are two people who met in a chatroom and have been emailing back and forth ever since, not sharing any personal information (including names) but rather philosophical thoughts and musings that dig into the heart of who they both are. In the non-cyber world, they are intense business rivals: Joe Fox, the head of a discount book empire, and Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a small independent bookstore. Needless to say, their relationship through most of the movie is not a particularly amicable one. And also needless to say, neither of them for most of the movie has any idea that the person they are falling in love with over the internet is their most intense competition. I won't give away the end of the movie, but you probably can guess roughly what happens.
What are the hazards of developing a relationship with someone solely online? Well, in the end, I suppose it really depends on the integrity of the person with whom you're corresponding. Of course there's your standard internet creeps, stalkers, predators that everybody hears about. That is, I suppose, the biggest reasons that chatrooms and social networking with people you don't know on Facebook or Myspace make me nervous. It's basic safety precautions that you meet in person someone with whom you are friends with online.
The closest I can come to a You've Got Mail- esque story is the story of my friendship with J. He and I met at a weekend winter retreat in 2004. We were basically together in person for about 24 hours before we each left to go back to our homes, which were about 3 hours apart. Before we left, though, we swapped email addresses and start corresponding in that medium. Four years pass, and we continue to correspond regularly. He moves even farther away than we were previously. We both go through high school and grow up. We talk twice or so on the phone, but mostly it's still just email. There was one point in time in which I toured a college in his town, but due to extenuating circumstances we were unable to see each other.
Fall '07- I come to college at AU. He goes to a college close to his home, which happens to be only a few hours from DC. We start to talk on IM instead of emailing all the time. At first it's only occasionally, but soon the frequency increases to daily.
Spring '08- a situation comes up in which we work out logistics for me to get on a bus and go up to see him. And for the first time in four years, it works out.
I was excited to see him, of course, but I was also nervous when I got on the bus to go up to see him. In general, it's not always considered a wise course of action to go alone to a strange place to see someone that you barely know, at least in person. You always have to worry with the internet about the person you're talking to, about whether in person they are really the same person. About whether they're a creeper-stalker type of person. Beyond that, about whether they're even as great in person as they are online. About how the online friendship will translate into reality. They don't always, of course. Some people are just better in online situations where they can control what's going on, what they say. It's a great medium for people who have the common disease of verbal diarrhea, which only has one remedy: open mouth, insert foot. If you're typing a message to someone, you can stop and think about what you say before you send it. It's less personal sometimes, perhaps, but it's a safe communication medium if you want to think about what you say.
I've written a previous post about how I personally find communicating in writing to be easier. In writing, I communicate honestly, articulately, and clearly, sometimes more so than I do while speaking. Well, okay, as far as honesty goes, I'm honest most of the time when I talk too, but it has a tendency more toward bluntness, which isn't always a good thing. In writing, I usually nuance my honesty better. The honesty part, I think, is why my friendship with J. translated well into reality when we finally met again in person. He and I are both pretty honest people, and so we were pretty much the same in person as we were online. As I've said, this is not always the case. Some people craft their online personalities carefully, but these are separate from who they are in actuality, which means that anyone who meets both the online personality and the in-person personality will run into a mess of contradictions and even lies, not at all a good thing for any kind of relationship.
I think that in the end an online friendship or relationship requires two things: honesty, which I addressed above, and dedication. It's tempting sometimes when an online relationship gets challenging or annoying to just start ignoring the emails, the IMs, the Facebook messages, etc. With in-person friendships, you usually have to deal with the person eventually because you know them from somewhere, but with the internet you don't have to. This is good if the online relationship goes sour, but when it gets frustrating in the normal way that every friendship does, it requires a lot of dedication to not just give up on the friendship and let it fade off into the void ("So good night, dear void").
I'll close this ramble with a quote from the movie that sparked it. It may not apply to every online relationship, but I think it can be emblematic of the best of online relationships of any variety. In an email to Joe Fox (before she knows it's him), Kathleen Kelly writes, "The odd thing about this form of communication is that you're more likely to talk about nothing than something. But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings."