There is a lot wrong with the internet and social media. People who are not who they say they are, saying things that are hurtful or untrue are all around us. Hackers and con artists try to steal your money while slightly unstable people who populate the fringes of political movements try to melt our screens with clever half-truths that make half of us mutter “Damn right!” while the other half reply with name calling and ad hominem attacks of their own.
But sometimes, an electronic community forms from normal, decent people who share a common interest. And I got to meet some of them last weekend.
My other creative outlet (and one that preceded this one by a few years) is over at CurbsideClassic.com. It is a website begun by Paul Niedermeyer from Eugene, Oregon, and centered around the idea that pretty much any older car has a story (or three) in it that can be coaxed out by someone willing to think about it for a bit.
The website grew steadily, and its high quality writing generated a group of readers and commenters who have been regular visitors. With rare exceptions, the CC combox is one of the most knowledgeable and civil online forums I have come across. When a bunch of people interested in old cars can be more respectful of one another’s opinions and feelings than people who discuss religious topics, then something is happening.
One of the great things that Paul has done has been to call for an occasional meet-up among those of us who contribute content and those who read and often comment. I have attended four of these now, and each has been a great experience.
Did you ever have an imaginary friend? I have had several. OK, they are not really imaginary, but they are people I have never met. Which is kind of interesting, when you think about it. Most friendships involve personal interaction and familiarity that builds over a long time. I still find it odd that the same result can come from pixels moving from one computer screen to another. For example, how can we really know who these people really are? I am pretty sure that my forty-something friend from Massachusetts is who he says he is and not a 22 year old woman who is afraid to leave her parents’ North Dakota basement and who fills her days by impersonating a dozen different people in different forums. I do not, of course, have actual proof of this.
What is interesting is that as collegial as a totally electronic friendship can be, it is made better by personal contact. I think that we as humans are hardwired to form bonds and connections with others. So when I can shake hands with, look at and listen to someone in person, there is a unique something added to a friendship that has already become fairly well developed.
Have you ever noticed that when you deal with someone only online or by email, you fill in the blanks about that person in your imagination? Although you have never seen this person’s face or heard his (or her) voice, you create an image and a soundtrack to complete the person in your mind. Although I have no expertise in psychology, I am convinced that something deep down within us requires that a friend have a face, a voice, and a hundred other attributes that make up an entire personality. And you have also surely noticed how far from reality that created persona is once you have met the person in real life.
Although I believe that personal contact is a good thing, perhaps my formerly electronic friends do not all agree. Perhaps I am more tiresome and annoying than they had imagined I would be. But then this is the stuff of real life, isn’t it? Real people are imperfect and sometimes harder to be around than the imaginary people we mentally construct for ourselves. But real people can also be so much better.
Since our first such (small) gathering about four years ago, each actual meeting has added several instances of real personal interaction where none had existed before. Perhaps I am meandering a bit here (I am still not completely rested from all of the walking and travel) but let’s just say it like this: There are virtual friends and actual friends, and I have both. Virtual friends are good. Actual friends are even better.