How real are online friendships? – Guest Post by Jemima Pett…

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”.

Legacy settings

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:

How to set up a Facebook Legacy Contract

What happens to your Social Media Accounts When You Die

Jemima Pett

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46 thoughts on “How real are online friendships? – Guest Post by Jemima Pett…

  1. Hi Jemima, Thank you for the warm, thought-provoking article. If only we all had time to read the books of, and contact, more of the wonderful people we hear and read of on Facebook! (I often think of cloning but don’t know how to do it…) It’s great to feel empathy for human beings we’ve never met. As I’m quite ancient, I have lost too many friends and acquaintances, which pains me deeply. Fortunately not via Facebook – and long may that be the case for I have much affection for many,…In this sad, breathtakingly beautiful world, too often sullied by evil people, when we ‘carers’ connect with each other – even in a small way, I feel we are lighting candles for the departed souls. Here’s to life and all its joys.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Author Jemima Pett has published a wonderful and very sensitive guest post on The Story Reading Ape’s blog – about the reality of online friendships.
    I wish I could tell I had ‘enjoyed’ reading it… of course, in a way I have. Her writing is excellent! – But the experience she made about losing online friends by them passing away, reminded me of a few of my online friends I have lost. I never met them personally – but still, it hurt to lose them. I grieved.
    Thank you for this sensitive post, Jemima.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this information, Jemima, and what a moving account of the loss of your online friends. I will be forever grateful that you checked up on me when I stopped blogging and commenting after my first shoulder surgery.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Jemima, and good point! I certainly have a lot of on-line connections, and several social media presences. Not only do I need to look into the FB legacy thing, but I need to put together a list, with log-ins, so that my husband or kids could make appropriate closure on all of them.

    And one of these days we will meet! I’ll make sure we stop off in England at some point…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for a lovely, thoughtful post, and for explaining about Legacy settings, which I’d never even heard of. Very useful information. I have been extremely fortunate to have met many of my online friends on person, via several groups that had get-togethers, and things of that nature. I can honestly say that almost to a person, they have been exactly the way I pictured them from getting to know them online. And several have remained close friends, in spite of groups that “disbanded” over time. For me, the internet has been a very positive experience in many, many ways, and making friends around the world is a huge part of that. (Of course, I do take precautions, just as I do with new people in real life.) But mostly, it’s been very rewarding. Crossing my fingers that ALL my friends, on line and IRL, continue to be in good health for a long, long time to come.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this post. I didn’t know about Legacy Settings. Sometimes I’m sad when a FB page is taken down a few months after a friend or online friend has died. I feel the need to check in and read others’ messages about that person. In one case someone I knew was ill but I didn’t realize how badly. His FB page is still going many months later and people are commenting. Yes, it’s sad, but better than disappearing without a trace! In this case, I’m dedicating my next book to him.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this post. I’ve asked someone very close to me to close my social media, but I did not know about the legacy setting. I will forward this to her. Also I didn’t know Janet givens had died, so sad. Often you don’t see posts from them and you blame FM.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I found out just a few weeks ago a very good online friend passed away… last September. I was gutted and still feel tremendous guilt over it. Andrew was a part of our group who’d been online together since the late eighties when the Internet wasn’t quite the Internet yet. We all did get together for a meet and greet in Vegas but even that was nearly twenty years ago. Andrew had recently released his first book, but had health problems. He was scheduled for heart surgery – which I knew about, but this was at the same time I was about to release my own debut novel and my husband – a renal patient – became very ill. Andrew never came home from the hospital and despite the many friends we have in common, I missed ALL the posts. Still can’t believe I was that out of step with people who are important to me. I recently bought Andrew’s book. Haven’t been able to read it but I know I will one day.

    I’m so very sorry for the loss of your friends, but thank you for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s how I felt about Sue. I even tweeted a message asking about her about three months after she’d passed, one that was retweeted by other author friends. I read her first book, I can’t remember when, now, but I’m sure it was while I was still in limbo. I’ll read the second one later this year, probably.
      Don’t feel bad about missing his passing – book production is all-consuming!
      The best thing is, you will remember Andrew, and read his book with him in your heart.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. “Facebook kept telling me it was her birthday, until I had to ‘unfriend’ her, to stop the annual sadness.” I know that feeling only too well. Each year Facebook keeps on advertising my best friend’s birthday, despite the fact that he died five years ago now…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thank you for this thought-provoking and moving post. There are undoubtedly a number of people in the online community (mainly on WordPress) with whom I enjoy interacting, some of whom have helped in the management of my blog (for which I am extremely grateful), while many others have assisted in the promotion of my writing.
    I feel sure that where I to meet some of those with whom I interact online, that we would get on like a house on fire. It is, of course possible to develop a persona online which differs (sometimes significantly) from the real person. The person who comes across as chatty and confident online may, in reality be an extreme introvert, while the individual who is known for their friendly personality over the internet may be a rather difficult individual to deal with face-to-face. Having said that, over a protracted period of online interaction the real person is (in my opinion) likely to emerge or at least glimpses of the man/woman behind the screen/keyboard. Over long periods of time people tend to let things slip thereby revealing more than even they themselves often realise.
    There is, of course a dark side to the world of online connections. Anyone who reads the news or follows it in any manner will be aware of cases where so-called friends have watched (without intervening) as people killed themselves on Facebook or other platforms. Also they have been documented instances where people have been urged by online connections to commit suicide.
    Ultimately I feel that online connections/friendships can be important. However, when push comes to shove it is those friends one knows in the real world who (in most cases) one can rely on when the chips are down.
    Thanks again for your fascinating post, Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kevin. You’re right on all counts. Even I’m a little diffident in social situations with people I don’t know, unless I have a role to play. So I prefer to host parties than go to other people’s! I’m horrified by the amount of bullying and the way it is seen as somehow ‘normal’. I never experienced it. I just hope I never stood by unknowing while my friends did.

      Liked by 2 people

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