We live in an exciting time. Anyone with an internet connection can go on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, SnapChat, Reddit, and other social networks to communicate, not only with people who live near them, but with people from all over the world. Not to mention online forums, blogs, chatrooms, online communities, and good, old-fashioned email. At any given moment, many of us are just a click away from finding someone to talk to or reading a recent status-update. I can go to an online writing community and have people like, comment and give feedback on my work. I can communicate with readers right now through this very blog post.
If we use it the right way, the internet gives us a way to always be a part of a community. Someone who has trouble making friends in real life can turn to the internet to find like-minded people who will appreciate his/her stories, videos, articles, poems, music, jokes, passions, and thoughts. A person who feels like a weirdo for liking something none of their real-life friends like doesn’t have to feel weird at all; because someone, somewhere, is probably blogging about that same topic. A well-known tagline from Apple commercials is that “There’s an app for that.” I would like to take this one step further and say, no matter what you’re into, there’s an online FORUM for that.
In spite of the benefits of communicating online, most people would agree that too much time spent online can be unhealthy. After all, our lives were not meant to be lived on the internet. The internet does not provide us with human touch. It does not allow us to shake hands or give hugs. It doesn’t allow us to see the emotion in someone’s face as he/she speaks (with the exception of videos). It doesn’t allow a bully in, say, the YouTube comments section to see the effect their mean words has on the person on the receiving end. Some can say that the internet does not allow for “real,” honest, human interaction. After all, it allows people to hide behind fake usernames and animated photos.
But I think anyone who has used Tumblr knows that even without seeing someone’s face, a personal blog can say a lot about someone. The content someone shares can lead you to know that this is someone you can be friends with. Sure, there’s always the possibility that people on the internet are not who they say they are. But I think that certain levels of authenticity are difficult to fake. Sometimes, people may find that their internet friends are the only ones who understand them. Or, at the very least, they are the only ones who won’t judge them. To some, that might sound pathetic. But to the high school kid who is bullied, feels like an outcast, and is afraid to be who he/she really is, an online community may be the safe haven that saves his/her life.
The interesting thing about online friendships is that you can communicate with someone, support them, listen to them vent, give/receive advice, and make them smile, even while knowing you’ll probably never actually meet them. Sometimes people do meet in real life. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes people get Catfished. Sometimes people become real-life friends with their internet friends. And sometimes, they fall in love. People used to have pen pals they sent letters to (maybe some people still do?????), and now, people have pen pals they send internet messages to. The internet opens doors to friendships that would not have otherwise existed.
But what else do online communities lack? While a person can have “friends” on the internet, there are ways that these friends can probably never truly be there for you. They can’t give you a ride to the grocery store or feed your cat while you’re away. They can’t go with you to the movies or try on dresses with you at the department store. They can’t help you prepare dinner for a party or walk you home late at night. They can’t give you a (literal) shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, or a kiss on the cheek.
However, for many people, their internet friends might provide something their real-life “friends” never could. They might listen, understand, and even care more about something bothering them than anyone in real life does. Internet friends may relate more and judge far less. Internet friends may see you express your depression, angst, anxiety, failures, and fears while being highly supportive. Internet friends may see you express your hopes, dreams, and crazy ideas, and lift you up when people in real life may only try to tear you down.
I think, more than once, I’ve heard John Green and Hank Green refer to online communities as “places” (I could be wrong, maybe someone else said it). And this always struck me. Do online communities really count as places? A place is defined as “a portion of space available or designated for or being used by someone.” Since online communities are, in fact, used by many people, I suppose they do count. But if a place, as we traditionally know it, can be found on a map, does the internet have its own map? Is Tumblrland over here, while Facebookland is over there, while Google+land is in the corner, trying to attract more tourists?
What I’m getting at here is that online communities are still communities. They have their own pros and cons, just as communities in real life do. After all, a person can try to socialize and have “real” human contact in the real world, and he/she can still be judged, discriminated against, and shut down. The internet allows us to find communities that might not exist closer to home. When it’s used the right way, the internet can allow us to connect with people who share our same values, and people who won’t judge us for being ourselves. The internet cannot provide us with the kinds of experiences that real life has to offer. However, it can provide us with the friendships, community, and interconnectedness that some people may struggle to find in real life.
So, my thoughts are this: as long as you’re eating healthy, getting enough sleep, drinking water, exercising/getting out, paying your bills, and socializing with real world people at least a little bit, being a part of an online community can be a perfectly healthy thing. After all, for some people, it really is all they have.