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.

The iPad’s promise for potential.

I tried. I really did. I told myself I wasn’t going to get one on day one. But then I found myself in a Best Buy, touching, filling my face with new glowing hotness, and asking “so, do you have any?”

“Oh yeah. We got a lot, actually.”

“Oh. Cool. Can I get one?”

That’s all it took. No pre-order, no line waiting, nothing. In and out in five minutes. Aimee even encouraged me:

“Well, whether you buy it now, or in two weeks doesn’t make a difference. Why torture yourself?”

A good woman, she is, that one.

Throughout the holiday weekend, I’ve had the chance to play with the iPad, not as much as I’d have liked, due to the requisite familial obligations one experiences at such times. I played the role of early adopter, as my relatives fawned over the lovely screen and Jetsons-like functionality. I convinced at least a few people to probably seriously consider it, and I solidified Justin’s resolve for the wait for his pre-ordered 3G model.

But really, how is it?

Well, it’s definitely something special. Gorgeous, svelte, futuristic. Enjoyable to use, with a host of new apps that make fun things even more fun. I can see myself doing a lot with it, traveling, showing off pictures of our new house, spending even more time on Twitter than I already do.

It won’t, however, replace my MacBook Pro. At least not yet, and not for a really long time. But that’s ok. It doesn’t need to. Steve put it right in between the iPhone and the MacBook in his presentation, and that’s exactly where it belongs. Furthermore, so many – SO many – people are decrying its very presence in the market, foretelling of the death of freedom, exploration, and open platforms. Cory Doctorow, I’m looking in your direction.

But this horrible, Orwellian outcome is not what I see happening, and others agree. Joel Johnson made a great counter-point to Cory, all of which I completely agree with. See, I’m not all about the iPad right now. It’s a cool new gadget, but what I’m about is potential. What it can do, not what it does do.

As a kid, all I did was think about the future. Robots, computers, flying cars, the whole thing. As an adult, well, I’m still waiting. A lot of what we were promised has yet to appear. Rather than wallow in my disappointment, however, I’m prepared to embrace what we do have. And what we have is one of the most inventive, creative, fascinating computer interfaces the world has ever seen. What we have is the potential to redefine how the world interacts with and utilizes technology, and how that technology shapes our lives. When I think about how the iPhone changed my own perception about just what a mobile device was capable of (and that was after spending years dissecting almost every other platform in the market), I get very excited.

I get excited because for the first time in my life, I feel like we are witnessing an event – a place in time that in years to come, we’ll be able to point at and definitively say “that’s when it changed”. Not because I’m an Apple fanboy, but because I am at my core still a child, filled with wonder, and filled with the hope that the future will be as good as I’d always pictured. I often feel like my life would be simpler in another time; that I should have lived in another era. I was convinced for years. But I started to realize that I would have been exactly the same kind of person even then – a DaVinci, drawing and dreaming fantastic things; a Disney, visualizing and creating entirely different worlds in which to play and live. Which is not to say that I fancy myself as important as these types of people – I’m still just a speck of dust on the windowsill of innovation – but that no matter which time I would have found myself in, I would always be dreaming of the next step, and when it would arrive.

It’s a different kind of thought process. Inability to maintain the status quo, constantly shifting, changing, looking for more. It’s why I need to rearrange furniture peridocally, why I organize information differently when I find a more effective method through which to access it, why I can’t just be satisfied with what I have. It’s not because I’m delirious, or that I like spending money. Ok, I do. But it’s because I want to be a part of the next step, as soon as it arrives. I’ve waited long enough.

My childhood was spent trying to grasp at the possibilities of the future. Now we can put one of them right in our hands, today. How can anyone hate potential? What kind of person looks at something beautifully designed and crafted and immediately hates it? Someone I’d rather not spend the future with, I guess.

I don’t think the iPad is the answer to the world’s prayers. But it is damned cool, and I’m more than happy to use it and enjoy it in whatever role it ends up playing in my life. And I’m really glad that at least one company is willing to take risks to shape the emerging face of technology, and do something different. You might not agree with everything they do, but the minds at Apple sure know how to manufacture a specific feeling. For me, this time it’s the feeling that things will not be the same from now on.