When I first entered this strange new place known as “life after hearing the you have cancer words”, I realise that I had expectations of how life would be playing out from then on. I vaguely expected that I would go through the treatment, share the emotional turmoil with family, friends and colleagues and then resume some kind of life as it had been “before”. Needless to say, it hasn’t quite turned out like that. The basics were there, but life changed beyond recognition. And life has never been the same since, for better and for not so better.
There has been one dimension of the cancer experience which has been totally unexpected. And that dimension is the rich, supportive environment I stumbled upon online, particularly through blogging. I could never have imagined the number of people I have connected with, and particularly the depth of many of those friendships. Now, this is not something new to my posts. I have previously (and often) discussed how emotionally involved I have become with friends I have connected with online. I have described how taken aback at the level of distress when one of our number is taken. The raw grief of loss, and the unexpected tears on learning that someone you have never “met” has been taken simply crashes through the boundaries we are accustomed to. I have previously, and more than once talked about how much that has surprised me. I have been moved beyond any imaginable expectations when one of my online friends was dealing with the toughest of times. So this is not a new topic in my mind, but I continue to be astounded at the warmth and genuine friendship which has developed with friends online and value this more than I can express in words. Utterly heart-warming.
In the past few weeks, however, I have been nudged to revisit some of these thoughts. I was shocked when reading a post from Nancy where she shared her shock when she learned that another blogger had taken her posts and copied them almost word for word. This made me reflect on how much we expose ourselves online and lay ourselves open emotionally. Just because what we write is completely genuine, we take it that all other similar blogs are similarly true. We generally accept what we read by fellow bloggers and bloggesses at face value in such areas as cancer blogging. Yet the internet is an unpoliced medium and as far as I am aware, there are no checks to ensure that what is written is true if that is what is implied or stated.
And then, this week I was I was catching up on Chez’s blog when I was stopped in my tracks wen I read her post about “Annie”. Chez and Anne had connected online, guest posted on each other’s blogs and after some time “Annie” abruptly broke contact. Given her secondary diagnosis, Chez feared the worst and thanks to social media and perseverance was able to get in touch with one of her friends. She was shocked beyond belief to discover that “Annie” had in fact fabricated her diagnosis and whole blog.
The point which I come back to again and again in this is the extent to which we trust. Nancy trusted her readers yet one chose to lift her words, and use them as her own. Chez trusted that “Annie” was being honest. Yet we find that this virtual layer of our friendships has the potential to be deceptive.
Essentially, we are trusting strangers, unknown entities, and opening our hearts and minds. We share our fears, our hopes and intricate details of what we go through in the cancer experience. Some of this is highly personal, but the supportive environment and strength of friendship reassures us and we feel able to trust. And then our world is rocked when something we trusted and believed turns out to be smoke and mirrors. That reflection in the mirror is of the complicated and inter-connected online lives and relationships we develop. And how much trust we place on the basis of the information in front of us, often because we share so much of our own personal self online. Something like this knocks that trust.
However, this has to be put in balance with the depth and number of genuine friendships and individuals in our online community. A good number of bloggers have posted accounts of real-life 3D meet-ups. The variety of social media we use also means that we have a kind of triangulation which must make it more difficult, but in no way impossible, to be duplicitous. Perhaps we have a sense of additional false security because we are after all living with our breast cancer diagnoses. But many of the signals that protect us in the “real” world are not there in the virtual world. We are far more vulnerable and exposed than we realise, and perhaps the very depth of genuine friendship we find online further lulls us into that sense of security.
The whole issue of trust was one which was very much on my mind a few weeks ago when I was making plans to met Terri in “real life”, my first chance to meet another breast cancer bloggess. I remember thinking that on the rational side, travelling to another city half a day away in another country, was somewhat risky. Was I being naïve in trusting that Terri was who she said she was? We had only known each other online. We read on and commented on each other’s blogs, had connected on Facebook, had emailed a number of times and I felt a true connection and shared values. But we had not actually spoken. I remember thinking quite clearly that in terms of a methodically calculated risk analysis, this would have to be considered rash and high risk.
However, although these “rational” questions went through my mind as I booked time off work and tickets, I did not seriously for a moment believe that Terri would be anyone other than who I had met online. I was sure she would be exactly who she said she was online. And of course she was!
After reading Chez’s revelation, it did make me stop and reflect on how trusting I am about what I read and how I connect online. I without doubt take what my blogging friends write at face value and would not think to doubt that some blogs could be invention. And how should I apply that to my own blog? Let’s be honest here – my own tales must seem rather far fetched and I do not readily share personal information to corroborate my experience. I think I have only ever posted one photo of myself and my name appears only in comments. How credible is my blog? A Scottish woman, living and working in one of the most enigmatic countries in the world, diagnosed with breast cancer, treated in Thailand, experiencing so much in all corners of Asia…….. Is this for real? If I were reading this myself, would I believe it? I am not sure that I would! But here I am, on a sticky pre-monsoonal Saturday morning in Yangon tapping away my thoughts while the fan is whirring overhead, a cheeky mynah bird calling out in a tree in the garden and a street hawker calling out “brooms for sale” as he passes by our hedge, along our lane. Yep, I am real– (pinches self) though in my PJs but don’t tell😉
I find that when it comes to online trust, it is similar to online loss. These new dimensions to relationships and interactions do not have rules or protocols. We do not have the signs and signals we are used to which enable us to process and evaluate online dynamics. And in many cases we find we are not equipped to deal with the depth of emotion we experience in something which may have been experienced entirely in the virtual world. Witness the incredible #bcsm discussions as one demonstration of online support and emotional connection in its discussions and debates. It is a new and strange territory, and one in which we find a wealth of unexpected characteristics.
The online world may be a fertile environment for duplicity without consequence. More than ever we need to be aware of that while developing friendships and connections in the blogosphere. In this complex issue of trust in this new and evolving space, on one hand I know I should be wise in developing friendships. However, I would rather risk and trust than not. Otherwise I could well miss out on the wonderful connections and friendships that have been brought to me purely thanks to the online world. And I can’t imagine a world without you!