That my near decade-long involvement with blogging and social networking has allowed me to pursue my love of writing and has opened the door to professional opportunities is almost incidental to what I really cherish about my online activities–the connection I’ve gained with like-minded people.

My family’s move from Chicago to Central Indiana eight years ago left me feeling isolated and lonely. My closest friends–the women whose friendship and support sustain me–are now scattered across the United States. The closest are at least three hours away. These are women who have known me from 10 years to nearly all my life. They have been with me through various life stages,ups and downs, doubts and successes. In some cases, we share similar tastes in books or television or restaurants or adventure. In some cases, we share political views and social concerns. In some cases, we are very different but maintain bonds forged in the schoolyard decades ago. We speak in the short hand of long relationships. These women are not so much friends as sisters.

Somewhere in “The Girls from Ames,”  a book I read a few years back about a group of 11 women and their decades-long friendship, there is reference to a study that found once women reach middle age, rather than adding new friends, they tend to deepen the relationships with women they already have. I think that is true–at least after I passed the threshhold of 40. Surprisingly, I have found myself unable to make many strong connections with women I’ve met in my new home. (Thank goodness for my few local pals.) I am stymied both by a hectic schedule and a long commute, and a culture that often feels alien to me. Some of the very things that are fundamental to who I am seem out-of-place in a very red, very conservative town, in a very red, very conservative state. My neighbors are good people, but often our beliefs and goals and interests are quite different.

I am an African-American, late-marrying, liberal, secular feminist with no bio kids and a fondness for books, dry humor and alternative music in a town where most folks are white, early-marrying, conservative, church-going parents with a fondness for country music and “Two and a Half Men.” Ain’t nothin’ wrong with Middle America. I was born and raised in the Midwest. And, here’s the thing, I love my town and my neighborhood, where neighbors say “hi” and bring over cookies at Christmas. I love that I can drive less than a mile in one direction and be in the middle of a corn field or drive the other way and hit Nordstrom’s. My stepson attended an excellent school until graduating last year. My house is just the cozy sort I always dreamed of owning–all cedar and stone with a fenced-in yard for the dog and a big fireplace that is perfect for chilly autumn weekends. I am close to good food and art and culture in the mid-sized city 30 min. to my south and just three hours from Chicago and all that it offers. I like it here, but despite all the things that I like about my town, I fear I would have soured on it long ago were it not for the Internet, where I have found the personal connections that I do not have nearby.

When I began writing online about the things that are most important to me, I soon found a small group of cyber-friends who inspire me, who write things that seem like they tumbled from my own mind, who share some of my beliefs, opinions and obsessions and challenge others, who crack my shit up on the regular. I found my tribe–folks who speak my language–online. We e-mail, DM each other on Twitter, recommend each other for writing jobs, meet up to run 5Ks, give advice, send notes of encouragement to one another, share family pictures, sometimes even talk on the phone. I have not met most of my virtual friends in person, yet what I derive from these relationships is important to me. In fact, I credit my cyber-relationships with sparking some important personal growth over the last two years.

But not everyone believes that virtual relationships have the same value as those that can be maintained through face-to-face contact. For instance, in a 2009 article on Huffington Post, Dr. Jim Taylor cautioned:

My concern focuses on the more personal and social aspects of Relationships 2.0. For example, I hear many people talking about all of the “friendships” around the world they have made on the Web, whether through social networking, gaming, or dating sites, or sites that reflect their beliefs (e.g., political or religious) or their interests (e.g., technology, sports). There’s no doubt that the Web has enabled people everywhere to connect and communicate like never before, but I would argue that connection alone doth not a relationship make.

Just like the use of the old term, virtual reality, many people in Relationships 2.0 have what I believe are virtual relationships, yet consider them to be real relationships. Virtual relationships have all the appearances of real relationships, but they are missing essential elements that make real relationships, well, real, namely, three dimensionality, facial expressions, voice inflection, clear emotional messages, gestures, body language, physical contact, and pheromones.

Is Taylor correct? For all the in-depth conversations with like-minded folks in forums, for all the Twitter conversations that last too late into the night, for all the personal e-mail exchanges with virtual friends, are we losing the true meaning of “relationship?” Or, is new media redefining what relationships are? My online friendships may be quite different from my in-real-life ones, but I think they are equally as valid.

Virtual relationships are based on limited information and, as a result, are incomplete; you can know people, but only so far. When connecting with others through technology, you get bits and pieces of people – words on a screen, two-dimensional images, or a digitized voice – almost like having some, but not all, of the pieces of a puzzle. You get a picture of them, but you lack the pieces you need to get a complete picture of that person.

But virtual relationships can seem so real. I blog for a group of mobile-technology web sites and the email banter among the almost-exclusively-male staff is no different than if a bunch of guys were sitting around drinking beer and watching football. Despite very clear geographical and political differences, the camaraderie and support is amazing. Yet, would this group get along if they met in person? I don’t think so. Perhaps that is both the beauty and the shame of online relationships.

Are not many offline relationships based on limited information? Take work friends, for example. The bonds we form with colleagues tend to be sort of limited in scope. We may, say, grab a drink at the pub after work, but not necessarily hang out beyond that interaction. Or, we may find that once one party moves on to another job, the bonds of friendship slowly fade. All-encompassing friendships are rare. Even my oldest female friends, who know me very well, don’t know everything about me. I think in most relationships, we bond over commonalities and save the parts of ourselves that don’t gel for other people.

I have a full real life. My best friends may not be nearby, but I do have companions to spend time with. I have hobbies and interests. My online relationships merely add to these things. I don’t fancy that all of my cyber-friendships would translate to the real world. Some I am pretty sure would. Am I being naive?

What do you think–are online relationships real?


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