Though I had a home computer and dot matrix printer when I was in college, the first computer to have a modem and thus an internet connection was a Windows98 computer that came with a free month of AOL. I still remember the exciting dial tone, beeps, and then SCREECH of that 56.K Modem connecting to the world beyond my walls. And, of course, the exciting announcements from AOL of “Welcome” and if you were lucky, “You’ve Got Mail”.
The thing about the “you’ve got mail” part was that until you found others to connect to, that mail box was pretty empty. Can you remember the days when getting an email was fresh, new, and rare?
After quickly boring of chat rooms and IMs from complete strangers, I wondered about what I could find online. You probably aren’t surprised that one of the first things I searched for was “Trixie Belden books”, wondering if I could find replacements for the ones my mother sold in a garage sale.
Then I discovered Zap’s Trixie Belden Message Board. It wasn’t long before I began to do something I hadn’t imagined possible with the internet: cultivate real friendships.
Back in the olden days of the internet, it took effort to get to know someone. You had to comment on message board threads, send direct messages, and exchange email addresses. There were no Facebook posts to like or Instagram selfies to see who you were connecting with.
It began with words. Because, back in those days, getting a photo online wasn’t an easy task. You had to send emails. Exchange phone numbers. Send real mail. And comment on each other’s writings. (Yes, I confess to both writing and reading an inordinate amount of Trixie Belden Fan Fic way back when.)
All of this comes up for me right now because one of my first good internet friends passed away on May 25th.
We met on that Trixie Belden Message Board in 1998. We began emailing and eventually exchanged phone numbers, talking at least once a week. Although she lived in Pennsylvania and I lived in Texas, eventually we put together a sleepover at my house. We invited several other Trixie friends to join us, the first of three or four ladies’ weekends.
When I began blogging, I encouraged all my internet friends to blog, too. We exchanged emails and phone calls and learned about each other’s lives in that way, but those early blogs allowed us to connect in a deeper way.
We became creative kindreds.
Though I moved on from Fan Fic and began writing for All Things Girl in 2002, she and I still stayed connected. We continued talking on the phone, exchanging emails, reading each other’s blogs, and never missed a birthday or Christmas. I still use the Pampered Chef garlic press she gave me one year.
When I took my oldest daughter to the ER because of her suicidal thoughts, she stayed on the phone with me on the drive there. She was a high school guidance counselor and understood the ways of the teen mind.
When I divorced, she came for a visit and took me shopping. She wanted me to have a “happy divorce” gift, and the pair of lamps we chose were a reminder of her love and light.
We knew each other before she married. Shared intimate details about our lives, including our sex lives. We talked about our dreams and desires for the future. We explored our views of God and creation and faith and hope.
Over the years, my focus became ensuring that the bills got paid, a task harder to do after divorcing. I stopped blogging as much and drifted away from most of my friends. Compartmentalization was the way I survived, and I missed the connections. Yet, I didn’t have the bandwidth nor did I wish to burden her (or others) during those years I traveled 200+ days a year.
The thing was, though, I had a secret anonymous blog. She found it, figured out it was me, and loyally kept my secrets. After moving to Ohio, and settling down into a semblance of ordinary life, I sent her a long letter, apologizing for drifting away, and making confessions.
She accepted my apologies and told me she knew about my secrets and didn’t judge me for them. We began letters and cards and the occasional calls. But, less frequently.
It seems as if I am on the phone less often these days outside of talking with clients.
All the things we do in real life to deepen a friendship seemed actually easier in the days before social media. We had to make an effort. We had to write more than 140 characters. We had to send individual emails, not blasts. We had to pick up the phone and talk rather than sending a text.
Yes, all those things now seem like so much effort, but cultivating real friendships take effort. Yes, social media is easier. But let’s be honest: it’s less personal. And now thanks to the advent of anything we post being kinda “forever”, we are far less likely to share what’s really going on in our lives.
Real vulnerability, something that’s needed for folks to connect, doesn’t happen when you’re sharing with the world. That requires intimacy. Social media is not intimate. Though I try to be authentic, I know that vulnerability is something that only trusted people get to witness.
I found out about her death on Facebook.
I had vaguely known she was back in the hospital due to her battle with a rare liver disease. The last posts I had seen made by her, she seemed hopeful and upbeat about being on the transplant list. I am ashamed that I have begun relying upon social media to know what’s happening in so many of my friend’s lives.
Is social media, the way to connect with hundreds of friends, actually making us less social and more shallow?
And the thought that plagues me this many weeks later is: what if I hadn’t see the post her mother made on her daughter’s Facebook page announcing her death?
I used to write in my blog daily. I sent multiple personal emails a day. I never missed getting a birthday card in the mail to a friend. It feels as if all the ways social media makes it oh, so easy to connect actually is eroding the ways to truly connect. And, I have to be honest: all the ways I create seem harder now that social media is there to distract me.
I write thousands and thousands of words less per month than I used to write. That’s because all that clicking and checking on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and my favorite news sites are addictive. And an easy way to numb. And an easy to distract myself when writing feels tough.
I have been making a hard effort to be on all those social media platforms less.
But what if I hadn’t seen that one post? What if in my need to curb my addiction to clicking and scrolling, I didn’t know she had died?
How do we cultivate friendships now in the age of social media? I mean, real friendships. The people you can call when you have a challenge with your teenager? The friend you can tell you’re having marital issues and know they’ll be a voice of wisdom (and keep it private)? The folks that you can spend hours on the phone with, laughing over the craziness of life and getting older?
Deep in my heart of hearts, I know that cultivating real friendships thanks to the world wide web is possible. Yet, how do we go beyond the surface? How to we stay attentive to what needs to be tended, like our business pages on Facebook, while carving out the time for deeper connections?
How can we keep building these true, deeper connections? Connections, which frankly, we all desperately are needing?
Are we destined to learn about births and deaths – marriages and divorces – on social media?
All I know is that this death of one of my first creative kindreds has sobered me. And inspired me to connect in ways outside of social media. After writing a sympathy card to her husband and mailing a check in her memory to her school, I sent another half-dozen cards and notes out to friends. A thank you note here, a birthday card there, and a few hey-I-was-thinking-of-you letters.
I need my creative kindreds far and wide. And I am grateful to first meet them thanks to a blog they write or a photo of their favorite cup on Instagram. I also know I need more.
And some way, I need to cultivate the time and space to make that happen.
About the Author: Debra Smouse
Debra Smouse is a self-admitted Tarnished Southern Belle, life coach, and author of Clearing Brain Clutter: Discovering Your Heart’s Desire and Clearing Soul Clutter: Creating Your Vision. When she’s not vacuuming her couch, you’ll find her reading or plotting when she can play her next round of golf. She’s the Editor in Chief here at Modern Creative Life. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.