Some thoughts on online relationships. No, not that kind.

I had an epiphany last night as I was falling asleep. I finally figured out the allure of talking to people online. Its ascendant path from novelty to necessity has always been curious to me, and I avoided it as it took root, through the rise of AOL Instant Messenger and similar software. But I succumbed somewhere around MySpace, and have been wading through the minefield of weird wonder ever since.

I don’t know what it was about last night that triggered the thoughts, but I cracked the code as I was drifting off to sleep and quickly grabbed my phone to leave myself a note as to the key.

Pen pals.

Stay with me. As a kid, the idea of having pen pals was really cool, right? Sometimes you’d do a project in school and write to someone in another part of the country or world, to get an idea of what life was like outside of your tiny kid bubble. When you got a letter back with some exotic postage, it was so exciting you could hardly contain yourself. What startling insight would we be able to glean from this passing of information between the walls of such different worlds? Usually it was something to the effect of “I go to school too” but it was always interesting on some level, because you felt, at least however briefly, that you had in your possession a snapshot into another part of the world.

Unfortunately, as I got older, I realized that I was far too lazy to maintain any kind of long-distance relationship, stationary-based or otherwise, and would let these things slide. I even neglected to write to my actual friends who had moved away. Pens? Paper? Buying and using stamps? THEN having to go to a place and MAIL this document and WAIT for a response? How depressingly archaic.

I’ve always had issues with instant gratification, and in a lot of ways (import video game auctions on eBay / media purchases on iTunes, I’m looking in your direction) the internet just made things worse on a global scale. But in doing so, it’s made a lot of things better. The tools that have been built in just the last few years have been insanely transformative. I never liked waiting to hear back from my friends. Now I don’t have to. They’re seconds away, wherever they are. Add in things like location based services (Foursquare, Gowalla) and suddenly you aren’t only talking to your friends, you can see them, and go to them. I would have killed a warehouse full of kittens for that kind of tech in college, when I came home to an empty house after class and just knew that fun was happening somewhere, and I wasn’t a part of it.

Furthermore, today I maintain a wide variety of what I consider to be fairly meaningful relationships with people I have never even met in real life (hence the pen pal metaphor), based solely on our mutual use of Twitter. Our interactions are near-instant through that network (and can be quicker if we go back-channel somewhere else). Through these connections I have the opportunity to strike up conversations with an almost unlimited number of other willing participants who share common interests. To be fair, you were always able to do things like this, as far back as online communication allowed, but never before with the speed or accuracy you can now.

With some of my new pen pals I have never even actually exchanged an email. There are so many better tools right now to facilitate these connections, so much more efficiently and in more enthralling ways than email, which when you get right down to it is just an updated metaphor for a slower way of communicating anyway. Yes, we all have email on our phones now, but there’s still nothing fun about it. It’s a tool. We make friendships with people because it’s fun to do so, and to meet someone who can share with you and with whom you can share as well. The myriad sites and services that sprang forth from the loins of email have brought with them a fully-realized, geo-located address book of nonstop fun, limited (only sometimes) by your current time zone.

Taking the next step to bridge the pen pal with reality: some of the people I’ve met online I’ve made efforts to meet in real life as well. Those that are close enough to me geographically, at least. Some of them end up being business contacts, some become friends. We’ve had fun together, and it makes our online chatting more enjoyable, because we have a commonality to fall back on since we know each other outside of that forum. You might have considered doing such things with your pen pals years ago, but it was nowhere near as simple as it is today. Furthermore, it’s almost irrelevant whether we met online or at an event in real life, because for many of us (and this holds true for a large majority of the people with whom I spend my online time) those two worlds are ever closer to merging.

The lesson is that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I still need real, human interpersonal contact on a regular basis, although there are many days when it’s the last thing I’d actually want. It’s good for me. It’s just that instead of feeling guilty for “wasting” time on Twitter, or whatever tool I’m using, I look at it very differently. If I’m doing something that I enjoy – engaging with real people, sharing ideas, making a joke, experiencing a common event – there’s no way I can view that as a waste.

None of this is earth-shattering stuff that hasn’t been coughed out on a million different blogs, in a thousand different countries. But I never gave it much thought as it was happening to me, and I started to wonder where the roots were psychologically that made it so attractive to me. The pen pal metaphor made perfect sense. It’s just that the pens I’m using now are my fingers.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.