IRL, or Better Than.
Note: I have edited in a section about the Neil Gaiman message board because I wrote this very off the cuff and my brain is full of holes.
This morning I’ve been thinking a lot about friends and the internet, thanks to this tweet. I think I might have to back this one. I was going to write a big ol’ Twitter thread about this one, but it ended up being.. well, blog length. So! Thinking back over my internet-using years and holy damn, I’ve met so many people via the internet. For – good lord – over 20 years now I’ve been talking with folks on the internet.
I first discovered Newsgroups when I was a novice internetter; I never really found a community there. Not long after, in 1997/1998 I had a friend introduce me to a MUSH (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUSH) that was hosted by the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, but used by folks from many places. It was such a fun interface. Text-based chat, but all sorts of weird stuff you could code, little bots to interact with, creating “places”, etc,. I ended up visiting Armidale for the first time to go to the annual party held for the UNE MUSHers and met SO many friends IRL!
It was a wild experience. I would stay close friends with so many of these people for years; I met my BFF (former BF) through there. My good friend Sarah who I lived with in London for a while. An absolutely wild thing, to have these people in my life, from the screen. At the same time as this, I was also playing/admining a MUD (RPG version of a MUSH). I wish I could remember ANYTHING about it there, other than my username (Illyria) & when that character turned up on Angel, I got a lot of people asking why my pic showed up in image searches. WELP.
For many years, that was my internet space. Well, and a little on ICQ as well. But as I moved away and got busier with Uni, I had less time for it. Hilariously, I ended up spending a semester doing an anthro subject on internet communities. Rather than being in an online community, I was studying it all; I ended up putting my thoughts on a personal site in what was a sort of proto-blog. A little while after that, I ended up shifting to Livejournal as I’d been following someone there anyhow & figured why not!
This was a ~whole new woooorld~ of internet culture and community and fandom and I spent SO much time there. Bursting out of just a text-based interface, this was somewhere I could blog, and comment, and use images and have user icons and project myself online far more than ever. With a much larger user base, I ended up interacting with a lot more people throughout the world, as well as folks in Australia. I found horror film lovers, comics people (oh the golden days of webcomics), vegans, fanfic writers – it was a plethora of content and friendships. I even met a boy I thought I liked (oh, hindsight) which prompted me to visit Toronto – and without that visit, and getting to know other people here, I’d have never moved here 10 (!) years ago. LIFE. It all intertwined with my life in Brisbane too – uni, D&D, music…
After a good few years, Livejournal (with all its ups and downs) ended up changing a lot, and I ended up falling out of the habit of blogging a lot, too (nothing has changed, there). Many of us ended up jumping ship to Dreamwidth – but I eventually just gave up on it all. At a similar time as shifting from LJ, I had transitioned to spending time on a forum set up by Universal Australia to shake up some interest for the Firefly follow-up movie Serenity. That fanbase was strong, and our community flourished – “Serenity Oz”, or “SOZ” as we affectionately called it, made us all many friends. Not only did we have meetups and screenings in Brisbane where I was, but even after the movie was out we started to have larger meetups around the country. We’d travel to Sydney, or Melbourne – and we even hosted one in Brisbane – and spend time with our strange forum pals.
To this day I am still very close to a good number of those people. Many have gotten married, had kids, and their lives changed fundamentally as a result of having been part of SOZ. Not too long before I moved away from Australia, we lost one of our core group to lung cancer, and it was an emotional experience, unlike anything I’d gone through before, because of the support of the folks spread out around Australia. When we couldn’t be there for a big life event, there’d be a webcam, or many photos shared. Eventually, Universal shuttered the site but passed us on an archive of the forums because even they realized it had been something special. Most of us just keep up via Facebook and Twitter now – which comes up below.
After LJ died down for me, and SOZ was still a big part of my life, I’d been shifting focus to Twitter, as of 2007. A lot of my LJ and SOZ pals were here, and we could have the casual conversations and stupid image sharing and all of that here, and LJ/its ilk became a bit unnecessary. It was new and fun! (Oh, the days of yore.) I could write swathes on how the community has evolved here and my experiences of how it’s become somewhat of a strange habit. Most importantly for this overall blog piece, it was a place that I started finding new people and things, and as the site grew, so did the people in my hobbies and interest areas to interact with.
Along with Twitter, there was a little nook that I found myself in for a bit — the Neil Gaiman message boards. During my time in London I met some people in the real world who were on the board and so I joined too. I was active a couple of years, and met all sorts of folks in the UK and the US. The year I moved to Canada, I road tripped to San Diego Comic Con with some friends in the “real life but also on the board” category and we stopped off and visited with so many of these internet people! Just like SOZ before it, I mostly see these people on Twitter and FB now, as I have pretty limited forum time.
My last big dip into internet friendships came out of board game Twitter, overall (there have been a few other folks here and there, but as a whole, it’s been this group of nerds). I’d chat with folks about gaming, I ran the social media account for a game cafe here for a good chunk of time, and ended up becoming friends with some amazing ladies in this hobby. We’d meet up at gaming events or cons and when we were apart, it was Twitter or FB chats that sustained us. We started creating content together – RIP Games on the Rocks – or even starting up little weird Slack communities around the content we made (I love you, Greatway Games). Twitter’s even led me to meet folks at conventions not because we chat online, but because they quietly watched along as I ramble and just wanted to meet. These people are my friends and my family and it’s weird to go a day without talking to them.
It must seem so strange for you normal folk out there, reading all of this. Yes, I have met friends without the internet, thank you very much. But I find it hard to make the distinction between the realness of either friendship. And as someone living distant from so many friends, it’s strange for me to not think about the ways that having the internet facilitates friendships, and sustaining them. Sometimes it’s just better than IRL for us hobbit-ish introverts.