Since writing about the unexpectedness and rawness of emotions sparked through friendships I have developed purely online, my mind has continued to ponder and I have found myself exploring this further at times at all sorts of times of day and night. The reactions and varied comments, and even the flurry of twitter activity clearly told me that I am far, far from alone in this, and I guess that is at the heart of the matter.
There are a number of themes to emerge from the subsequent comments, discussions and blog postings and a couple of these have particularly taken my attention. One theme to emerge is a comparison of the nature of online and “real life” friendships, or what I have seen termed “3D friendships” and the fact that they can feel in some ways as if they are more profound.
I also find the question of “overlap” fascinating. This is where firm online friends meet in real life, or 3D. The Accidental Amazon described meeting with 5 other feisty Breast Cancer Blogging Advocates at the recent National Breast Cancer Coalition the US. These women knew each other online, particularly through their blogs and it must have been a truly special if somewhat unreal experience to meet in person, as AA recounted in her comment on my unexpected emotions post. On a similar vein, it was warming to read M of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer as she blogged about meeting up with an online friend recently and talked about how different that face to face meeting was in comparison with her expectations. I would love to meet my online cyber sisters and friends and wonder how we would get along if we did have the chance to connect in the real world.
The theme which has caused me the most reflection is that of why we become firm “stranger-friends”, sharing personal details about our illness and feelings, without knowing or even protecting our names and other identifying information.
When I reflect back over this whole cancer experience, I recall discussing my blog with family members, anxious to protect their privacy as well as using the blog as a way to update detail in a way which they could choose the level of detail they wanted to know. I had realised that when I was sharing updates and news I would focus on the practical aspects of the diagnosis, treatment plans, side effects and of course, matters such as hair loss! And let’s be honest there was plenty of that to talk about. However, we never ventured far into the topics at the root of those scary, dark thoughts and fears which would keep me awake at night – being confronted with my mortality, my fears and my sense of vulnerability. It is no secret that I started blogging mainly as an outlet for offloading those thoughts. Rather than allowing them to feed on each other and grow, taking over my mind, I started to compose these thoughts into prose and the early thoughts even took a poetic form. These enabled me to take control over thoughts, crafting them into something I could be proud of, rather than something to feed my fears. Many of the words on this blog were formed during the hours when souls usually sleep and troubled minds make trouble.
How does this relate to our online relationships? I find that the level of detail that I put on the blog is greater than I would or could discuss in person. Without a stage to myself that is! Let’s face it, if I were to recite or share a fraction of what I post here, it would resemble some long winded monologue! In a regular conversation we tend not to talk in that level of detail. A conversation usually does not allow the free rein that a blog posting does. When you add the deeply personal writings which we put online with our interaction, a link is made, often a feeling of close friendship, generally reciprocal and one which can develop quickly into a deep emotional connection. The fact that the words we share are not bound by the diversions of face to face discussions means that our thoughts and ideas can develop and be expressed in a continuous train of thought, without diversions, interruptions or the subtle body language signals that guide a spoken conversation. There are no raised eyebrows, or sharp intakes of breath to tell us while we are posting that we should move onto another topic, or give the current one a rest. Being able to process and express these ideas is enormously healthy and helpful. The fact that our site stats tell us that someone is interested enough to read our thoughts, updates and rants often in great detail gives us the signal to follow through our train of thought. We lay our hearts and minds out for all to read in the public domain.
The beauty of this is that it is so often reciprocal. I greedily read the deeply, personal thoughts and accounts of so many blogs, often initially because our path is similar and then because we develop a bond of friendship. By laying open our hearts and by reading and engaging with each other through comments, Facebook, twitter and sometimes personal messages, we quickly reach a level of intimacy and familiarity, deepened by a shared experience and in a context frequently of feelings of vulnerability. I believe that this combination enables such a strong emotional connection,
When I look back at the thought process that I have followed even in this post, I can see that the act of articulating these ideas has enabled me to arrive at my own slightly clearer understanding of this unexpected phenomenon of the depth and powerful emotions of online friendships. It has helped me to understand part of the question “why?” these friendships spark such deep emotions. It does not even begin to explore the question “how” to handle these feelings. However, that process of rationalising and attempting to understand and acknowledging in itself will prepare us and thus help to equip us to handle these emotions.
Even more powerful is the fact that so many of us feel similarly and this reassures us that we are not alone in far more ways than one.