I am in Vancouver this week, and just in from lunch with a newspaper editor who I have been working with since 2006. It was the first time we’d met face-to-face.
I’m here in the city for exactly this reason: to get some face-time with people who I interact with mainly, or in some cases exclusively, online. My trip was timed to coincide with the summer session of UBC’s Optional-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing (which I am most of the way through now), so I could meet up with many of my fellow students as well as some of the profs. But I am also taking advantage of being based here, downtown Vancouver, for the opportunity to have lunches and coffees with people who I don’t normally get a chance to see.
And all of that has made me think about this business of “friends” versus “connections,” and online relationships versus “real” relationships. I’ve managed to avoid Facebook and this whole idea of accumulating “friends” – some of whom may be real-life friends, but many of whom are really more like connections, or contacts. At least LinkedIn and Twitter’s use of the words “connections” and “followers” acknowledges that these online relationships are not necessarily personal, nor are they necessarily two-way.
I am one of the many members of LinkedIn who has signed up, and periodically accepts invitations from “connections,” without getting what the whole thing is about. But Twitter is different for me. I do feel that I have actually formed some great relationships – dare I call them friendships? – on Twitter. Looking at these relationships (started via Twitter, but progressing to longer email communications) it almost feels that an online relationship can be as “real” and personal as a face-to-face relationship.
However, I realize that if I truly believed that, I wouldn’t be here in Vancouver this week.
My UBC program is called “optional-residency.” This means that the whole program is online, other than a ten-day session on campus in Vancouver every July – (which is, itself, optional). So nearly all of the interactions with my classmates are online. We talk in chat rooms. Only a few students have uploaded photos of themselves, so my mental picture of what they look like has been fabricated from some blend of what their name represents to me and what they write about.
This week, I met for the first time two students who I got to know this past year in a non-fiction class. In a non-fiction class, when you get to “know” one another you actually find out a lot. There were only seven of us, and we shared memoir and personal essay works that are still in progress: writing that is as raw as it gets. We revealed parts of ourselves that we are not yet ready to reveal to our “real-life” friends or our families, probed our classmates with cutting personal questions, pushed one another to “go deeper, go deeper.” We know one another – or at least know things about one another – that we;ve revealed to few others.
Yet, in a way, we don’t know one another at all. There is something that comes from seeing how someone’s eyes flash, from hearing the passion of their voice, from breathing their air, that online contact cannot replace.
It is expensive for me to be here, downtown, for most of a week – expensive in terms of hard costs as well as in terms of time. But I feel it is worth it.
For example, the editor who I lunched with today: He has been editing and publishing my work for years, and I have read much of his – so we already knew that we had much in common in terms of ideas and values. Over the years, we have both had to give and take to bring some of my articles to publication, so we both knew that our relationship carried a healthy dose of mutual respect.
But now I know what he looks like, how he speaks, what food he likes to eat. And we spoke about more than just whatever article I am currently working on. I feel that, by each of us taking an hour out of our busy days for a little bit of face-time, we have taken a step towards a place that perhaps you can never truly get to in the online world: from mere “connections” to “friends.”