I haven’t had conversations this deep with some “real life” friends in years.
Life. Feminism. Politics. Health. Charity. Religion. Penny Arcade. Pins.
We’ve chatted about all these things and more for the last several months. His username’s a string of insensible characters giving no real impression of the guy behind the handle.
This article is a small tribute to how real and lasting random connections online can become. Towards the end, I’ll give you a few tips for developing these friendships.
The Guy Behind the Handle
We’ve swapped real names, we’ve swapped stories, we’ve learnt from each other. We’ve laughed, we’ve wondered, we’ve built a real friendship based on common values.
It all started after PAX Aus 2013, about a year ago, when I ventured onto the Penny Arcade forums for the first time. I had been having a great time collecting some of the Pinny Arcade pins that had just launched. There were going to be exclusive pins at the various iterations of PAX across America and, now, Australia. So, forum-goers developed the concept of “pin pals”: groups of people who would collect and trade pins for specific partners overseas. Admins sorted us into groups based on how hardcore we were about catching ’em all. And that’s where I met him.
We were going to be trusting each other with money, semi-expensive items, and overseas shipping. We wanted to get to know each other a little. We shared some basic info and then a little more. We found things in common and we just kept talking.
When you can’t just hang out, when your words are your entirety, things can become meaningful. Soon these topics arose, starting with feminism and transgender issues, stemming from some controversy surrounding Penny Arcade and PAX at the time.
When you can’t just hang out, when your words are your entirety, things can become meaningful.
I think I went a little overboard in my response to a topic I’m passionate about. But I felt comfortable with him. I had no reason to hide my views. I told him I was a proud feminist, imperfect but trying to do good.
I showed him my perspective on the events of the time. He was clearly taken aback by the depth of my response, but he responded in kind, with just as interesting and inspiring a post. I replied, and it continued.
Since then we’ve covered many topics. Not in a checklist kind of way. They’ve just come up naturally. It’s been great and I feel I’ve gotten to know this guy much more quickly than some friends I’ve known in person for a while.
If he’s ever in Australia or I’m in the US, I’ll be excited to meet him in the flesh. If that doesn’t happen, that’s okay. Online doesn’t mean fake. Sometimes the relationships you can form there can be just as – or more – real than those you find offline.
So, my pin pal, you know who you are. I’d like to thank you for the awesome conversations, the pins, and for expanding my world a little more. I look forward to many more chats. I’m glad we met.
Oh, and I definitely have you covered at PAX Aus :)
How to make real friendships online
I’ve never played MMOs much, nor talked extensively on forums. When I have interacted online, its generally been positive, but I haven’t followed through into deeper relationships.
It can be scary and even truly dangerous for some people online, and not everyone depicts themselves honestly, nor does everyone have good intentions. So please use common sense and put your safety first (here’s some ideas on how to do that). Don’t ever reveal details that are too sensitive or personal. And remember that even if you trust the person, online communication is not always secure.
Okay, with that out of the way, here’s a few tips:
- Start on common ground
- Ignore (or block) toxic people
- Show a genuine interest in them
- When you are safe, be yourself
Start on common ground
We met on a forum dedicated to our common interest. I have friends who’ve invited WoW guild members to their real life wedding. Starting on common ground just makes sense.
So find a community dedicated to an interest you’re passionate about and want to share with others. I’ve found some great people on tabletop roleplaying and worldbuilding forums. Because those are my interests.
It’s an automatic icebreaker. You can start by talking about the thing you love. It may seem simple, but it’s revealing. I’ve found other people on forums that love the same things I do, but I can tell by the way they talk about them that I don’t want anything to do with them.
Starting from common ground breaks the ice, roots out some people you wouldn’t get along with, and gives you a bit of a head start in the relationship.
Ignore (or block) toxic people
Briefly, and related to the above, ignore (or block) toxic people. You’ll find them and if you can ignore them, that’s best. If you engage, that’s where it gets messy.
You’re looking for friends, right? So why waste time feeding trolls or trying to convince the inconvincible of your view? Remember, we’re trying to start on common ground. If they have a fundamentally different view of a thing you really value or believe in, you might find friendship hard.
There’s plenty of fish on the web.
Show a genuine interest in them
Dale Carnegie tells us, rightly so, that a great way to make friends is not to blab on about ourselves all the time, but to ask them about themselves. Again, simple but effective.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People
If you’re genuinely interested in them, the questions should come naturally.
Here’s a little help, though.
You could ask about their work. Or their favourite shows or movies, and discuss or recommend titles to each other. Ask about other hobbies – see if you’ve got more common interests there. If not, engage with their other hobby. I’ve learnt more about tea in a few online conversations than I had any idea there was to learn. Now I’ve gotten a little into it myself.
Important enough to explicitly reiterate: you need to be genuinely interested. If you’re asking them about their thing, but just waiting for your chance to reply so you can talk about what you think or love, that’s not genuine. Do you care what they have to say or do you just want them to listen to you? A relationship is give-take, not take, take, take.
Keep an eye on their interest levels too. If they are just using you to boost their ego and only want to talk talk talk, take take take, and never listen or give – well, see the previous point on toxic people. Are they someone you really want to be friends with? Or is it just the idea of another friend? Again, there are plenty of people out there. Try with someone else.
When you are safe, be yourself
I can’t overstate the importance of being safe in your online interactions. I’m no expert, but just keep it in mind and know you need to look out for your own safety. Check in with yourself every so often: Am I being asked to do anything I don’t want to do? Do I feel safe?
If you’re happy and comfortable and safe, perhaps you can reveal a little more of your interests and perspective. The other person should be genuinely sharing back, too. If this is a safe and positive interaction, then the relationship should grow stronger as you both learn more about each other beyond your pop culture avatar and weird usernames, beyond your common interests, beyond your out-most personalities.
Another important point, is that this should all really happen naturally. You shouldn’t have to force friendship. If things make their way to this point and you’re safe and having a good time, valuing the growing friendship, then that’s great!
Congrats! Keep it up! You may form a lasting friendship :)
What are some friendships you’ve made online? What are some tips for making online friendships? Have you ever met your online friends in person? How was it? Feel free to share in the comments below. Who knows who you may meet!
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