Do you have virtual friends?
I grew up hearing you should never talk to strangers, never accept a candy from an unknown person, never get in a car with an adult you have never seen, … I’m sure you heard that too! As a parent, I give my kids the exact same talk! And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one!
So why is it that as an adult I don’t follow these rules? Don’t get me wrong, I still would not get in a car with a total stranger or eat things I would randomly receive. But for the rest? I’m not sure. As an expat I find myself engaging with total strangers. During my first few months in France, I would address people on the street, in the shops, happily answer old ladies commenting on my hat or anything in that vein just for the sake of talking to an adult. I might no do it as much as during those first few months but it still happens. It comes more naturally than what it used to back in my working days in my hometown. I suppose I believe I can discern better, as an adult, than what a kid could possibly do? This is true for real life encounters and virtual ones.
When it comes to virtual friendship, I must admit I would have never expected to create some. Because this is something I repeat and repeat to my kids, over and over: do not under any circumstances engage with a stranger online. Never accept a message, a friend request or anything related to a disclosure of any personal information online. Not that they have social networks accounts but I do have a pre-teen daughter and don’t want to take any risk. It is never too early to inform them of what could happen. Identity theft is something I explain to them regularly, I ask them to be extra careful when online.
I’m not saying I don’t follow the same rules, on the contrary, and I think I might be extra cautious on some levels. For example, why can’t I put my last name on my “about” page on this blog? I might get there at some point, but I suppose I still live by the rule “vivons heureux, vivons cachés” which could translate into “to live happily, live hidden”.
It was not until our move to France that I started adding “virtual” friends on Facebook. Well, it all started 2 years ago. I was part of a small local group of expat moms on Facebook and heard about a men’s night out. You know how it goes, women tend to organize the family’s social life once abroad and this includes organizing get-togethers for the men when you are new somewhere. So here I was, talking to this lady who told me she would send me a friend request as it would be easier to communicate. I discussed it with my husband, pondering the pros and cons of accepting her. I didn’t know her, had never seen her. We did have friends in common but they could also be virtual ones, right? To be honest I had heard of her and how nice she actually was. She was my first virtual friend and we eventually met in the following days/weeks. In some ways, she opened a door although I didn’t add any other virtual friend for 2 years after that.
Recently I have started adding and engaging with total strangers on Facebook. Not randomly, I have not suddenly lost my mind. No, I’m doing so with people who are part of a group that has a fairly small size and we all share a common hobby, blogging. After exchanging online and discovering their universe through their respective blog posts, you start feeling as if you know the person, you feel a connection. So when the first friend request arrives, it almost feels natural to accept it. Almost! Having a glimpse of a “stranger”s life is quite frightening at first. Of course, you can decide how much of your life you want to share but even so.
There is much more than the questioning about how much you want to let them see. You also ask yourself if you want to let them in, do you accept to let them get to know you, and the other way around. Being part of a group of people, reading their comments and their posts offers one the possibility to forge an opinion, the first impression.
I am now linked to a few lovely ladies (I haven’ t mentioned it but I’ve only connected with virtual women), my virtual friends. With some we have quite a few exchanges, with other it is close to none. Now, why do I call them virtual you could ask and you would be right! For some reason, I created a list on Facebook for the people I meet online and named it “virtual friends”. I know they are real person but for me they remain virtual, as in the Matrix movie, our exchanges pass through lines of 1 and 0, it is not tangible, I can’t touch that friendship, I can’t link it to a moment, to a shared experience, to a smell, to a taste, to the sound of their laugh or voice. In that perspective, some are no longer virtual as we actually spoke via Skype, I heard their voice, their laugh, saw emotions pass on their face, we shared a cup of coffee separated by thousands of km! It’s quite a strange feeling to discover someone for the first time. The opening moment, when the person appears on the screen and you say hello can be a little awkward but quickly this impression fades away and you talk and talk and talk! Do they remain virtual or do they become real?
I am learning about and building 21st-century friendships. And you know what? It is exhilarating, rewarding. I’ve decided to go with the flow and let go of some of my fears. Now don’t get me wrong, no need to send me a friend request on Facebook!