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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Editorial

Friends on the Net

by Don Webb

Andrew Sacks’ “A Friend Is a Friend Is a Friend?” appears in this issue.

Andrew, with the quotes from Shakespeare, John Gay and Molière, you’ve rolled out some heavy literary artillery in your argument about the special nature of friends. And you raise important questions, for example:

We know what a friend is: it’s someone who will offer help or at least commiseration in time of need, or one who unselfishly applauds your good fortune, or someone with whom we have no qualms in sharing our thoughts. But must such a friend necessarily be “real”? Is literally shaking hands with someone a prerequisite to friendship?

The problem may be one of vocabulary. After all, we do qualify “friend” in any number of ways: “best friend,” “good friend,” “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” etc. And now we have “e-friend.” Maybe Facebook just doesn’t have a word more appropriate than “friend” to work with.

The main target of the essay is language. You’re quite right that the open-ended nature of social media invites a kind of hyperbole that soon begins to parody itself. One can’t be just a “friend” anymore; that’s almost damning with faint praise.

Now we see “best friend” (BF), or BFF (“best friend forever”). Soon we’ll see “VBF” (“very best friend”) and ABFUCC (“absolutely best friend until creation collapses”). Where will it end?

Lest you think I’m joking, APFUCC is a sedate academic organization: L’Association des Professeurs de Français des Universités et Collèges Canadiens. The acronym is taken quite seriously except, perhaps, at after-conference cocktail parties.

There may be something to those parties. In the early days of the Internet, Clifford Stoll wrote an account of tracking a spy on line: The Cuckoo’s Egg (1989). Stoll is tech-savvy but somewhat cynical about on-line relationships: he takes a dim view of e-friends and recommends going to a bar, if you must, to find real ones.

And yet... Are we really stuck with the derisive term “imaginary friend”? Can’t we say that someone we’ve never met in person is a “virtual” friend? I rather think so.

As Henri de Buffon said, “Style is the man himself.” There’s a lot to that. In my 26 years on the Net, I’ve had the good fortune to make many e-friends and to meet many of them in person. In only one case was I surprised, and then pleasantly.

I had gotten to know a fellow in an on-line forum and expected him to be somewhat dour. He turned out to have a refreshingly ironic sense of humor that simply did not come across in writing. For all the others I’ve met, their style was them and they were their style. Meeting them has been a delight, and it’s frosting on the cake.

Today, social media don’t provide such advantages, or at least not easily. Twitter is basically a headline newsfeed. Facebook is basically a glorified public forum that lends itself poorly to sustained conversations.

In hindsight, the early days of the Internet were a kind of Golden Age. There were no Net browsers and no forums, let alone social media. Rather, people gathered in “listserv” discussion groups. And the conversations — or “threads” — were sustained, informative and, for the most part, great fun.

Best of all, you got to know people. Some, I admit, one might not care to meet in person. I’ll never forget the day when a listserv bug combined my discussion group with the mailing lists of CATS-L and VAMPYRES-L. The tabby-lovers freaked out when they suddenly found themselves invaded by Draculaphiles talking about the latest fashions in leatherwear and dungeon furnishings.

A personal message of mine once encountered the Bug of the Year on a Cyber 960. Line noise inserted a weird character into the address line. The message would have gone to every address on the computer, but it crashed after the first fifty. Yogi T. Bear replied: “And goodnight to you, too, sweetums.” A technician half-apologized. “We’re not surprised that the system works badly. We’re amazed that it works at all.”

Literary historians used to moan that the telephone had replaced letter-writing and deprived them of secondary sources of information such as they had for authors in previous centuries. The historians didn’t know when they were well off.

Personal contact and the telephone are great for communicating emotional nuances. Writing is best for facts and ideas. And e-mail is a hybrid of writing and speech, halfway between a letter and a telephone call. So much the better. The telephone was a historical blip. The epistolary mode has come roaring back and, with it, a whole world of personalities on the Net.

Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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