One of the things that I love best about our new online-based world is that I never feel alone. And for an introvert, who often likes being alone, that can be sometimes overwhelming. Like the real world, the online world can be too much. But as a rule, my online world has treated me well. It’s more than a couple of social networks – it’s an entire community, there day and night, just like a real community is.
When our great-grandmothers were born, they lived in small breezy towns by the sea, or tiny country villages, or even big cities in compartmentalized neighbourhoods. They knew everyone, whether they loved and hated them, and they spent time living out their lives in a bustling close-knit community. It wasn’t considered taboo to speak to someone on the street. It wasn’t considered strange to ask for help, or to borrow a cup of sugar. And though I live a hundred years later in a large, bustling metropolis that despite my love for it, can feel cold, I have that sense of community, too. I have it online.
I was nineteen when I joined Livejournal, a journalling site that quickly became the largest blogging site on the Internet. What made LJ special was the fact that it was so large, yet you could make your own experience out of it. I thought of LJ like a vast ocean, with lots of little inlets and harbours in it. Those harbours were represented by each journal, or blog, and like our great-grandmothers’ communities, you could create your own community, right around your journal.
LJ allowed you to “add friends” to your journal, which meant that you had people who, day and night, hung on your every word. They’d be on when you couldn’t sleep at 4 AM. They’d be on when you had a bad day and needed a glass of wine and a cry after work. And after thirteen years on LJ, my little friend community was just like how I imagined those real-life harbour towns to be. We lived, worked, celebrated holidays, experienced births and deaths, sent each other letters and gifts, and enjoyed our lives with our friends. We might have met those friends in real life, or we might have never seen their picture. They might have sent us money when we were in crisis, or they might have just given supportive words. And that is what I miss about LJ, which is now quickly fading into a series of ghost towns. That sense of close-knit community.
Facebook, my main social network, has a sense of community, but it’s more like we all live in one huge apartment building, each contained in our own little apartments. Like a real building, you might see each of your neighbours daily. They might see the notices you put up on the bulletin board in the hallway above the mailboxes, or they might rescue your cat when she decides to roam the halls. You probably have a group of close friends in the building who look after your pets and babysit your kids in a pinch and come over to watch movies and eat takeout. And you might have a bunch of people in your building who you never see or hear from, or only see and hear from in a blue moon. It’s not the same as Livejournal, but it’s a sense of community. I’m not alone.
Twitter is like a room full of loud and cacophonic voices, with the occasional hint of conversation or urgency getting through to your ears. Maybe someone turns around when you tap them on the shoulder. Maybe they can’t feel your taps because so many other people are tapping and pulling at them constantly. Maybe you sit in a corner of the room with a few close friends and have unbroken conversation. Or maybe the room falls silent at an opportune time when you have something to say, and everyone hears you – good or bad. But you get heard.
And Instagram – like a big art gallery where some of the work is incomprehensible and some is breathtakingly beautiful. Some is akin to looking at a boring photo album with your grandmother and some is rich in storytelling and significance. It’s all memories, standing with people and discussing what you think about that particular piece in front of you. Light and shadow, good and bad.
My point is, they’re more than websites that I can close down or turn off. They’re places where my friends are. They’re meeting rooms and classrooms and sunny days at the park. And that spills over into real life, through phone calls and visits and smiles and outings. I’ve met a lot of my closest real-life friends online first. Our community – our little harbour town where we hang out washing and call to each other over the fence and laugh at something stupid together. Telling our news and our fears. Running to our neighbours immediately when something good happens, and equally again when something bad happens. Reaching out for that sense of security in our closest friends.
There’s a lot of criticism about living our lives online. And some of that’s accurate – just as you would never want to be someone who never left your small town, nor do you want to be someone who lives life only on social networks. Hearing and seeing and experiencing new things is a large part of life. Touching someone’s hand and watching them breathe, move, and smile is important. We can’t live life completely virtually.
But they’re valid, these little tiny communities. They’re places we learn and grow.
They’re comfortable, and they’re home.
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