Back when I was in school, I had a couple of pen pals from other places. I don’t remember who they were or where they lived, or even where I got their names, though I think that might have been through school assignments. It was always fun to write about myself, then to receive letters in the mail. After a couple of letters, the pen pal relationship fizzled away. I loved writing even then, but it was difficult to maintain a friendship with someone I’d never met and who had never met me. I’ve heard of pen pals who maintained their correspondence for decades, but that never worked out for me.
After I became a published writer, I was delighted to receive letters from readers who had enjoyed my books and wanted to let me know. Though I tried to answer every letter I received, I couldn’t keep up a continuing correspondence with all of them. Even with my writing friends I met at conferences all around the country, it was difficult to find the time to keep in touch through the mail.
And then came the internet. As slow as I am to jump into the latest trends, I’ve become active on a couple of forums (fora, to be more formal), and I’ve made friends there. People I’ve never met, some of whom I know only by quirky screen names, but friends, nevertheless. When my mother became ill, my on-line friends sent prayers and cyber-hugs. And that gave me some comfort. When she passed away, they sent their sympathy. That, too, was consoling. In return, I’ve worried about their sick children, celebrated good news with them, grieved with them in bad times. My concern for them has been genuine.
On-line friends drift in and out of my life; some post for a while, then disappear, leaving me to wonder what happened, if they’re all right. Others I’ve been in contact with for several years; I know their names, where they live, a few things about their lives. I haven’t met them, but I consider them friends. Very good friends, in a few special cases.
I know the downsides of the internet. I’ve warned my children about being too trusting with people they “meet” on-line. People who may be far different in real life than they present themselves in the anonymity of cyberspace. People who have nefarious motives for making those virtual connections. I worry about the children who are stalked by predators, the vulnerable senior citizens taken in by financial scams, the lonely men and women victimized by heartless con artists. I’ve seen people who are close to me harmed by that very anonymity, others who let themselves be seduced by it to their own detriment. I’ve seen hateful, cruel and inexcusable comments made by — well, lowlife who hide behind false names while they display their ignorance, their intolerance, their viciousness. That’s why I tend to stay on sites that are well-moderated (sometimes maybe even over-moderated) and to be very careful who I “friend” on-line.
I warn the kids to remain on guard about what they post, reminding them that anything placed onto the internet remains there forever. I’ve heard the stories about people who lost jobs or were unable to run for public office or were turned down for exciting opportunities because of some foolish and indiscreet post they made while drunk or angry or just too young to consider future consequences. It took me a while to understand why they wanted to spend so much time “talking” to strangers. Second Life? Facebook? My Space? They all sounded very strange and slightly dangerous to this relic of an earlier, non-connected generation. Frankly, I worried about even starting a blog (I have this unfortunate tendency to babble, sometimes a bit injudiciously). But my connected kids (yes, I mean you, Kerry and Justin, and you both know how hard I resisted), convinced me to take a leap of faith.
Despite all my fears, I continue to believe stubbornly that most people are good. That the vast majority of those who enjoy interacting with other people from around the globe have only good intentions — wanting to share interests, to expand their horizons. I continue to enjoy the on-line friends who drift in and out of my interactions, each one enriching my life in some way.
Someone on one game I play asked where everyone was from; the answers have astonished me. I’m sharing my enjoyment of that game with people from all over the world – England, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Poland, Spain. All over the U.S. and Canada, and too many other places to remember at the moment. It’s just a little farming game, but it has the same appeal to all those other people as it does to me, reminding me of how much we all really have in common, despite our differences. Which reminds me that Harlequin books are published in over one hundred countries, over twenty languages, so that the stories my fellow authors and I tell are read and enjoyed all around the globe. Something else so many of us have in common.
Each day, this world grows a little smaller, a little more connected. Good and bad, decent and evil, and every shading in between. It still scares me a little — but it gives me hope, too.
Can we ever really have too many friends?