Every once in a while something happens in my day-to-day life – or someone tells me a story about an incident in his or hers – that makes me think about how we develop and maintain friendships. That happened again this past week when I got an email from an old friend. In our modern cyber world, we’re no longer restricted to forming acquaintanceships and deeper relationships with people who live in our neighborhood or general community. We no longer have to wait a week or more to receive a letter that was sent from across the country or the other side of the globe — email allows our correspondence to be nearly instantaneous. Cell phones and skyping make it simple to keep in touch in a more personal way with friends who aren’t nearby. And social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, facilitate introductions to people who share our interests (or who are just nice!) and that we never would have met otherwise.
I think of the Austen “communities” on blogs like ours and, also, on both Twitter and Facebook. I marvel at how just using the #Austen tag on a tweet is like a calling card saying, “Hey, I love JA’s writing! Who else is with me on this?” But these online social networks have done something else, too. They’ve expanded our ability to be social from our homes or our cars, even when we’re otherwise alone. They’ve given us the ability to share our knowledge with strangers in another time zone and to have endless streams of information shared with us in return. Of course, along with these potential pros, there are a few cons to such constant connections. One downside, in my opinion, is how difficult it can be to take a serious break from the Internet without people sending you messages asking, “Are you okay? It’s been 7 minutes and you still haven’t answered me…didn’t you get my email?” (I’m kidding, but only about the number of minutes… 😉 )
When I think of Austen’s story characters who were good friends — like Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet — I wonder if their friendship would have been strengthened by the insertion of social media or if it would’ve caused its demise. Remember those letters Charlotte sent Elizabeth from Huntsford where she didn’t mention anything about her new life that she couldn’t praise? Would Charlotte have been able to refrain from letting a gripe or two about Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine slip by if confronted with a barrage of tweets, FB comments or private emails from Elizabeth? Would Elizabeth’s concern for her friend result in her sending texts or calling Charlotte on her iPhone when she was certain Mr. Collins was out tending his garden? Or, would the need Charlotte had to protect and defend the choices she’d made keep her from updating her status on Facebook or responding quickly to Elizabeth’s direct messages? In other words, would the sheer quantity of communication create more opportunities for honesty…or for socially acceptable deception?
I ponder these things. Usually after I’ve spent 2+ hours surfing the FB pages of my friends when I should have been writing…LOL.
But, while I can’t speak with any authority on Jane’s (or Jane’s characters’) reaction to social networking or its effects on that particular longstanding and very close personal friendship, I can say that — for myself — I’ve been surprised by its gifts. Yes, it can appear superficial at times, but I take most public commentary to be a conversation starter, not a complete dialogue. Over time, I think these short, quick interactions can lead to longer and more substantial ones if both parties are willing. And, yes, it’s very time-consuming — much more so than I’d expected when I first started blogging 5 years ago. But I’ve met MANY more wonderful people through my group/personal blogs, Twitter and Facebook than I would have ever imagined, and I’ve reconnected with friends I knew from years past, too. Just this week, in fact.
Most of the members of the Austen community I know only through our online conversations. Of my fellow writers that I have had the pleasure of meeting in person, Abigail is one of the few friends I’d met face-to-face before we interacted on the Web. (She helped to make the JASNA AGM in Chicago so very enjoyable — I’ll always be grateful!) And, though I hope to meet more of the contributors and the visitors to this blog in person someday, I find it impossible not to think of many of you as friends-in-the-making already. We may not know the ins and outs of each other’s daily lives or run into each other on a random Wednesday (and thank goodness for that! I’d hate for you all to see me in my “normal” state: old sweatshirts, stretchy yoga pants, fuzzy multicolored socks, hair that’s a curly disaster, no makeup, and gloves with cut-off fingertips because my hands are always cold in winter — the writing life is rarely glamorous!), but your comments here, your FB updates and your #FollowFridays always make me smile. They do, in fact, have a real (not only virtual) impact on my day. I think about the things you say when I’m away from my computer, and I’m glad to get to continue our conversations later – even if they’re in the form of 140-character tweets or “likes” on our FB walls. I’ve learned all kinds of fascinating things from you and gained new perspectives because…well, you’re interesting. You’re all a part of my world, and I appreciate each of you for being in it.
What are some qualities you love about your friends? For me, it’s a range of things: their genuineness, honesty, sense of humor, empathy/kindness toward others, open-mindedness, willingness to overanalyze books, music and movies for hours…online or in real life over coffee and cinnamon rolls! I’d love to hear about yours!!