A post by Conrad Gempf a few weeks back had me thinking, so I’m finally putting it down here… in his post, ‘meeting’ in RL, he discusses having met bloggers Maggi Dawn and Andrew Jones in the past. This got me to thinking about some of my own experiences with online relationships or friendships. Some years ago I coined the term “e-quaintances” to refer to online friends, attempting to recognize the unique nature of these relationships. Not like the pen-pal of old, where communication was typically less frequent, yet not like friendships in person because after all, you’ve perhaps never sat across a table having coffee with the other party. E-quantances.

Some years ago, I used to participate regularly in the discussion taking place on a particular newsgroup. These were the old days when people knew what NNTP was, when HTML email was eschewed. The good old days. I used to use WordPerfect fairly extensively (it was and still is a far superior product to MS-Word), and spent some time in their support forums. Among the many product support groups, there was one called corel_chat which was where all the off-topic stuff landed. This group became a gathering place where people shared much conversation on many subjects, ranging from the netiquette of top-posting or bottom-posting when replying to messages, the convention of the “–” in emails and why mail clients no longer respect the convention to the current price of Corel stock to the growth of GNU/Linux to “Monty’s paradox” to world events to HDT (“humour distraction therapy” – we coined our own term and TLA). This was a cohesive bunch of folks from all over, visiting and sharing together… an identifiable online community engaged in an ongoing daily conversation.

Eventually I spent less and less time in that forum as other demands were placed upon my time. The forum was eventually shut down by Corel, though many of the participants migrated en mass to another online space where it continues in modified form to this day. A lot of the “faces” there have changed now, but some remain. I hear from some of them occasionally; often a recurring theme is “whatever happened to so-and-so, do you hear from them?” Kinda like a high-school reunion question (I’m assuming… I avoided my ten-year high school reunion, and if they had a twenty-year, I neither heard about it nor had much interest in it). The thing is, one of the most active group participants suddenly disappeared, and nobody had heard from him for months. Months has since turned into years, and people still ask each other. The interresting thing is that in searching for him, some of the group members dug up contact information for his ex-wife and phoned her in search of his whereabouts. There was much concern expressed, web searches conducted, and even obituaries scanned, with serious talk of hiring a private investigator to find him. And nobody in the group had actually met him in person.

This experience informs some observations on the nature of online relationships… and the fact that genuine friendships may be established with people from around the globe. In ways we’d barely have imagined twenty years ago, we can become fast friends with people we’ve never seen. As the globe shrinks, however, it is not at all out of the question — in fact it’s become a relatively common event — for people to meet for the first time in person after knowing one another online perhaps for years… these being “IRL” meetings (in real life), and when done in groups it’s called a “meet-up” which means it’s common enough for new vernacular to appear.

In this vein, I had the privilege to meet Arlen a few weeks ago when I was in Minneapolis. We connected at Solomon’s Porch and spent a few hours over beers. Despite it being our first in-person meeting, we pretty much skipped the small-talk and slipped straight into conversation on all kinds of matters almost as though we’d known each other for years. This in itself became a fairly noteworthy observation, but I would now feel free to call Arlen and others who I’ve never met IRL “friends.”

There was once grave concern for those who spent too much time online, saying the behaviour was anti-social… but I would now argue it ain’t necessarily so. This changing nature of relationships and the newfound validity of online relationships is already having a profound effect on our culture and our times… and of course provides a context for the major emerging church conversation in which we now find ourselves. Just another way in which our culture is changing… and here I am, just thinking aloud again. Online.

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