About 14 years ago I first ventured to the internet to do something other than find (and print out, can you imagine) a couple of pictures to use for my presentation at school. Our class had just had a little masterclass in HTML web design, where we created an online page with a tool for kids, and I decided that I liked it. By the time I got home I had already lost my first username and password because having to remember such things wasn’t really something I had ever needed in my life before that point. First internet lesson learned. Over the next few months I proceeded to build a couple of awesome looking websites with a lot of sparkly gifs and eventually found a different website where I could do the same thing without using HTML. Brilliant! This website, named kindertent.nl, also happened to have a chat room and forum. Soon after I made my first online friends – people I had never met ‘in real life’, but who knew more about me than my ‘real’ friends.
Back then, it wasn’t as normal to have online friends as it is now. To some it’s still hard to imagine that you can be friends with people you have never seen, but with the rise of Facebook and other social networks it has definitely become less stigmatised. People aren’t confused anymore when you tell them you have been texting someone for months now just because you happened to swipe them right. It used to be different. Apart from comparing online friends with a pen pal, people didn’t really understand. How could someone spend hours, days on end talking to someone they didn’t know?
The thing about this question was that it happened to be plain wrong. If you haven’t seen someone up close, that doesn’t mean you don’t know them. Yes, they will be able to hide things, but they also dare to tell so much more than they would ever tell face to face. I could even say that those early virtual communities were the places where misunderstood kids gathered. Social outcasts found each other online and helped each other with their teenage anxiety and other issues, without actually talking about those exact subjects. It was a place to escape. At school we were the quiet ones, maybe even seen as weird, but online we could really be ourselves.
Now, years and years later, I still have a lot of online friends. I have met a couple of them over time, but most are still ‘just’ a person behind a screen somewhere else in the world. I feel lucky to be able to have so many awesome friends from places I haven’t even been to myself, and I wouldn’t ever want to miss it. I am not that misunderstood quiet kid anymore, but I still share a special connection with so many people who are ‘like me’. They make me laugh, they make me cry, they even make me cry of laughter. I can’t even count the amount of times my dad has asked me why I’m grinning at the PC again. All I can say is that these people make me happy.
Shout-out to all my online friends who are reading this. I have known some of you for over 10 years and others only for a month, but you’re all special to me!