It’s Not as Weird as it Sounds: My Online Friends

Let’s just clear the air: i have friends i’ve made online.

Immediately whenever i disclose this particular piece of information to people who have not done the same, i (99% of the time) get one of two reactions. The first is a mild, “oh-that’s-nice” which reeks of subtextual fear and disapproval. The kind of response that means that people might ask politely intended but poorly phrased questions indicative of their worry that i only have friends online because i’m incapable of making them “in the real world.” I’m not a fan of this response, but i understand it. Making friends via YouTube is still relatively new in the broader discourse, despite YT’s years of existence.

The second response is one of overt judgement or worry – people who make comments like “that’s really weird, lizzie,” or “how do you know they’re who they say they are?” To the first comment, my initial response is simply to say: well isn’t any way you meet someone weird? Who defines normality?

But such esoteric smartass replies are not precisely conducive to communicating my point.

Because, at the end of the day, i get it.

The stereotype of creepy, predatory men lit in a dark room only by their computer monitor is a real one. At least, Criminal Minds tells me it’s real. The idea that there are dangerous people out to manipulate, scare, control, or abuse people (particularly young women) is not merely an idea: it’s a grim fact. I don’t discount that – but i also am aware that there are bullies and threatening people in every corner of our world. There are as many dangers as meeting someone online as there are in meeting someone at a bar or coffeehouse. You have to use your intellect, street smarts, guts, and meet in public places the first time around.

But here’s the other thing about said stereotype: it infers that i am talking exclusively to creepy men in their fifties preying upon my youth via chatrooms or facebook. The reality is quite different (not that you can’t make friends that way). My closest “internet friends” (a term i only use to distinguish them as people i met fist via wireless, and secondly in person, not that they are any less important to me than my “real life” friends) i met because of YouTube.

Which, understandably, might even compound the confusion. I would wager (again, in my non-expertise, totally subjective opinion) that 90% of people who use YouTube watch videos only pertaining to cats (totally acceptable), music videos, Rick Perry parodies (also completely okay), and the occasional school project for the super cutting-edge teacher. What is not included in this is how i got into YouTube – video blogging.

I’ve posted some videos here before of my own making, and more often than that make references to my favorite vloggers, John and Hank Green of the vlogbrothers. While the Green brothers by no means started the idea of a video blog (vlog), their channel and the community subsequently created around it has initiated an entire online movement. In 2005, the two brothers committed to a year long project where they would engage in text-less communication, predominantly through videos they would make for each other alternating every day of the week. The project, though not daily videos, has grown and persisted into the impending year of the apocalypse 2012. Because of their wit, insight, nerdiness, and utter abandon of self-consciousness on the web, these two gleaned, somewhat surprisingly to them, several hundred thousand followers (over the span of several years). As part of their mission to “decrease world suck” (which is literally to fight, through the power of love, anything that sucks in this world) they believe that all people are “made of awesome.” To this end, anyone who is “made of awesome” (who can be anyone) and wants to combat “world suck” is a “nerdfighter.” Meaning, if you like Doctor Who or Harry Potter and want to support small business owners in developing nations, you are a nerdfighter. Or if you’re into other things, that’s okay too.*

As i’m writing this, i can’t help but giggle a little at how strange this all sounds to put into a textual body. “Made of awesome” may not reek of Shakespearean eloquence, but it is pretty communicative and expressive of what the community is about. Yeah, the vlogbrothers are quirky and strange, but they have – through their own self liberation – given space for the inner nerd flag of anyone with an internet connection to be flown with pride. In their wake, thousands upon thousands of people have started their own vlogs, created nonprofits, made friends, hosted “gatherings” of nerdfighters, and generally united over a front to fight what they see is bad in the world by making connections with people who believe the same.

It’s no different to me then meeting someone at a Harry Potter appreciation society. Or a meeting for a campus organization seeking to promote awareness of injustices within the US Court System. A group of people, with common interests, meeting and talking. The difference is a computer screen.

In January of 2011 – exactly one year ago – i started a vlog. To be honest, i was wretched. My videos were too long, i had no clue how to edit, i talked too much, and never had much of a direction. But, six months new to the nerdfighter community, i desperately wanted to be a more involved part of it. That, and i was doing a little participant-observer research of my own for a potential senior thesis (more on that another time).

And, within a month of making videos, a fellow nerdfighter sent me a message on YouTube asking me if i would possibly be interested in a collaborative channel with herself and three other nerdfighters. I was both flattered and a little apprehensive – making videos on a channel with four people i’d never met before? Talking about what exactly? All of the responses i now get when i saw i have a video blog ran through my head. And yet, a part of me knew that this would be a really cool thing to try, should i only give it a chance. If it failed abysmally, it was just a little internet experiment. If it rocked, then i would have really been a part of this online community. Thus, allmadeofawesome was born a year ago this February made of myself, Jenn, Candace, Sarah, and Sara Michelle.

Fortunately for the five of us, i would say our little project rocked. It’s not famous, we’re not renowned among internet folk or anything like that – but that is not the point. The point is that, in spite of the weirdness of it all, i started talked to four other incredibly motivated, intelligent, and totally nerdy women about nerd culture and being at university. Basically, what i do with my friends “in my real life.” And through our videos, i’ve become genuine friends with these ladies. Not pornography, no predators, no venting of pent-up emotions i am incapable of expressing to people i see and hear and touch in the “real” world. Just friends.

Such good friends, though, that i’ve now hung out with two of them in person. Sara Michelle, who has the Friday slot on our channel, lives pretty close to where i go to school. We’ve attended two Harry and the Potters concerts together and have plans to do more nerdy stuff of the like – and when we’re hanging out, it’s just us talking and driving around or eating guacamole sandwiches (well, the last part is just me with my neurotic eating tendencies). Not weird. Not creepy.

okay, the normalcy argument may be lost here. but look, no serial killers!

With Sarah, i got to see her when i was in London in October. Sarah is, in fact, one of the major reasons i started watching Doctor Who, because she being British means that it’s somewhat compulsory to be awesome and nerdy and moon over Matt Smith (i know, sweeping generalizations (it’s a joke!)). Thus, when i’d fallen so deep in the time vortex that i wanted to go to the Doctor Who Experience in London, i invited her along – and we had such a marvelous time. For, despite his many waonderful attributes, my father is not precisely a Whovian. He was such a dear in spending the four hours with us in the museum, but it was Sarah with whom i geeked out over the tenth doctor’s actual TARDIS and the Ood prosthetics. She got the geekdom, the excitement, and the exhiliration at such silly things the way i did. Friends. Real friends.

sarah and i…in the tardis!

All of this to say, yeah. I have online friends. They’re real, they matter to me, and i realize that culturally this may not be the most acceptable. But as much as the internet has changed, so has our culture. The internet is a vehicle, i think, for what you make of it. For friends, for news, for connections, for cat videos during exam week. I think if we exercise appropriate caution in the same way we do in tangible reality, we can use the internet as a tool for good.

What are your thoughts? Have you made friends via the interwebs? Think i’m still a freak? You are all most welcome.

current jam: ‘safe & sound’ taylor swift, t-bone burnett, & the civil wars

best thing in my life right now: kitties, coffee, and my new mug.

*if this is not clear, i recommend this video as a better, from the horse’s mouth introduction!

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