Since we hooked our computer(s) up to the internet seven or eight years ago, I've made a handful of "online friends". I met most of them on writers' forums and most at the PFFA. We exchange occasional e-mails (sometimes more than occasional) and chat on AOL and comment on one another's blogs. My husband lovingly refers to them as my "imaginary friends" and likes to tell me how they are all just voices in my head. The circle is small: just three or four people and I've known most of them now for at least two years. I'm a "slow-burn" when it comes to making friends online and off.
All joking aside, there's an element of truth to this "imaginary friend" thing. I've taken the information they've given me about themselves in the form of photos and letters and formed an only half-real picture of who they are. I'd love to tell you how good I am at "reading people", that I've never been misled, disappointed or creeped out, but that's not true. Unlike the character in my book, I am not a forensic linguist nor am I psychic; I cannot pick the other person's words apart and determine whether they're telling me the truth or not. I cannot read minds (my mother didn't pass along that gene, I guess). A time or two I actually have been misled, disappointed and creeped out. It happens.
I suppose an element of faith has to come into play in this kind of relationship, but this really isn't that different than real life. Every time we let someone new through our true front door we're taking it on faith that they are who they say they are. For that matter, every time we drive through an intersection, we are acting on the belief that the guy coming the other way will slow down or stop and isn't feeling suicidal or homicidal that day, that his brakes work, that he isn't drunk or preoccupied with cell phones or children. It takes some trust in mankind as well as a certain amount of alertness just to get through the day and internet relationships are no different.
For me, the bigger leap of faith is accepting a phone call from one of these "imaginary friends". Shifting from the person I've conjured to the actual person themselves can be difficult and I'm generally a nervous wreck for the first conversation or two (near stage-fright-proportions) as I work it out. However once or twice I've actually found the person on the phone to be so much more real (better?) than anything I could create in my head, that the nervousness falls away almost immediately and I'm suddenly talking to a friend--not just a stranger with a familiar name.
I had a conversation of this kind on Friday evening. This person and I have been passing each other in the halls of various writers' forums for five or six years so I've had ample time to create unfullfillable expectations. When this person offered to call, I had think about it a little before saying yes--not because of them, but because I wasn't sure I wanted to wade through all the anxiety of trying to carry on a conversation with someone who seems to know me better than I do them (I feel like I'm violating some unwritten social construct). But I decided to take the leap and wound up glad I did. By the end of the conversation I wished they really did live nearby, for inviting them over for coffee seemed like it should be the next most natural step. The conversation was just that comfortable and the other person just that genuine. Honestly, I think it's been a long time since I've chatted that easily with anyone on the phone outside of a couple of people (one of those being my husband). It was a very pleasant surprise.
I guess what I'm driving at is that as the world is changing, how we meet people and make friends is too. The leaps of faith are broader than they used to be and the world is a lot smaller. This means friends and enemies are closer than they appear. So we both have to be wiser and more trusting at the same time, choosing who we invite in carefully (using that all too precious a resource-common sense), but letting them in all the same. Otherwise the internet is only half-used and the world only half-explored and friends only half-real.