How real are online friendships? How do you handle the inevitable?
If you don’t have a companion animal, and avoid all those Facebook memes of cuddly puppies, cute kittens and ridiculous antics of parrots, you may have flicked over some of TSRA”s guest posts recently.
What you may not realise is that those pets bring people together too.
Friends I haven’t met
Of course, any shared hobby brings like-minded people together. The power of Facebook and other social media sites is that people who like the same things—whether actual people, or hobbies, music, animals or books—find each other. And just as regulars feel they ‘know’ the Story Reading Ape, so we get to ‘know’ people we interact with on Facebook, Like on pages, or visit on blogs.
Many of my writing ‘friends’ I have never met, and I’m never likely to meet, in truth. Some of them I know by email as well as generally online, and some I have done projects with. I often wonder what we’d be like face to face. Certainly there’d be the shock of the sound of their voices — so different from the ones in my imagination! And I bet they’d be older-looking than their avatars. (Maybe we should Skype each other!)
Sometimes, though, those people disappear. You wonder what’s happened to them. In some cases, you scroll back (especially through their website or facebook page) and realise you may have missed signs of illness. Sometimes you missed the final tell-tale post…
Friends I miss
I’m going to talk about three friendships that came to an untimely end.
Sally was someone I used to know through my local art group. When I moved away we kept in touch through Christmas cards and then on Facebook. She was a talented potter, and held a few sessions for the art group, where she took away our efforts and fired them in her school kiln. I kept some of mine, and I’m glad I did. I heard from a friend that Sally had died suddenly, after a short illness. The trouble was, Facebook kept telling me it was her birthday, until I had to ‘unfriend’ her, to stop the annual sadness.
Sue Ann Bowling I met through the A to Z Challenge in 2012. She lived in Alaska and was writing a wonderful epic science fiction series, full of genetics and development of mixed-race species, and politics. I have written about her before, since I felt a real empathy with her, her garden, and her lifestyle, which she blogged about. I enjoyed the weekly update on Alaska weather (and sunrise/sunset times). Yes, I’m a little geeky, and so was she.
Sue let us know she was ill, and even blogged about her illness, its ups and downs, and the problems of being flown from her home to the state capital for emergency treatment. Reading between the lines, we knew that she knew she didn’t have much time. The stories were not finished. She asked her readers for ideas on leaving the management of her books to someone for ‘afterwards’.
It took me more than six months after she had died to discover the message about her passing, left by her family in a comment to one of her posts. Like many of us, she had them scheduled, so the posts had continued after her actual death. The comment was lost in something else. You could still access some of her blog for more than a year afterwards, but the other one (on a paid-for site) ended very quickly.
I mourned Sue. I mourned her more deeply, in some ways, than I did Sally. I don’t know whether the search to discover whether she had gone had something to do with that. I now understand what people who have lost loved ones mean by ‘needing closure’. I know what it feels, not what it says.
Two weeks ago I was only four days late in discovering that another online friend, Janet Gibbens, had passed. Janet and I met on Facebook, because of the guinea pigs. She had guinea pigs. She even had a Kevin, and my Kevin looked just like her Prudence, who was her Kevin’s special friend! With me still? When Janet became ill she was open about her treatment on Facebook, and we all rallied round to support her. She was fond of many animals, especially hens. Chicken toys and photos abounded. She invited photos of her friend’s animals to make a picture-wall to help her through the dark hours of her treatment, in hospital and at home. I was pleased to donate. She was funny, warm, energetic, and crazy, and I miss her.
I realised Janet had gone in two ways. First, she wasn’t commenting like she usually did. Second, she had set up a legacy administrator for her Facebook site, and they had put out the picture I had initially thought “why has Janet put that up without a comment?” Facebook had also changed her Facebook page heading to “Remembering Janet”.
This is a step that I welcome. It’s an option in the Facebook security settings*, so that if the inevitable happens to you, someone will be able to tell all those friends in your world. These online friendships we make are just as ‘real’ as the people who are friends with through work, hobbies and every other way. In some ways they are more real. We can be in touch with people on the other side of the world who ‘speak our language’ far better than the people who live next door. I care about my online friends as much as I care about, well, my golf partner. Maybe I’m a sad person, but I know I’m not the only one!
So do your friends a favour, and do a little preparation, a little insurance, against those accidents that could be life-changing. If the option’s there, use it. Starting with Facebook, and working out what to do with your blog, books and other presence that will outlast you.
*to find the legacy settings either look at your settings pages or try Facebook Help and the FAQ (accessed at the page bottom)
Note from TSRA – You might also find these two links helpful: