Monday, September 27, 2021

Can We Be Internet Friends?

Today is one of those days when I don't have anything in mind to write about. I worked yesterday, so I put up another of my Pitchfork 25 posts. I'm next working Wednesday (it was Thursday but I got an email this morning asking if I'd swap days, something that almost never happens.) so I'll almost certainly use another P25 post for that. 

I love doing those posts. I'm pleased with how most (not all) have turned out but I realize they're not going to interest everyone. This used to be a blog about mmorpgs, after all, and I'd like it to go on being one, most of the time. 

For that reason I don't want to throw in a music post whenever I don't have a better idea, even though it would be a really easy thing for me to do. I can get one done in half the time it takes me to do a gaming post.

Also, as far as the Pitchfork thing goes, there are only six albums left and those are going to be far from easy posts to write. Two are done and in the bank but the last four are going to be tough. Four albums about which I have a lot to say but also four albums by only two artists, both of whom I've already written about in this series and one of whom I've written about many times before, including specifically about two of the albums in question.

Those are some of the reasons I'm not racing to finish the series but mainly it's because when it's done I'm going to need to think of another. Having this sequence of predefined titles and subjects, around which I've been able to riff with genuine pleasure as and when the mood takes me, has been both satisfying and exciting. It's allowed me to indulge myself in a way that makes the blog feel fun, while also efficiently stockpiling posts, something I've never been able to do in all the many years I've been blogging. 

I definitely want to keep that going. I just have to come up with another set of hooks. Another list to work through, most likely. Maybe several, so I can mix things up a little.

Before I started thinking about all of this I was going down my blog roll clicking on new posts in the hope of finding inspiration. That's long been my fallback position on days when nothing much comes to mind. And that's where I happened on Belghast's post, titled Friendship is Weird, at Tales of the Aggronaut

Most Mondays for quite a while Bel's been posting mixtapes he's made in a series called Mixtape Mondays. His musical taste and mine by no means match but they do overlap in many places. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading his notes on how he came to make each selection. I've listened to most of them all the way through, heard some new things I liked, some old things I already knew I liked and had my mind changed about a few things I was pretty sure I knew I didn't like.

I had been wondering how long Bel could keep coming up with ideas for these mixes. About this long, it turns out. As he puts it "the well has officially run dry." Instead of a mixtape, this Monday we got one of those revealing, heartfelt posts his blog is rightly known for, a musing on the nature of friendship.

I would hate for Bel to have to feel bad to write posts like these but as a regular reader I really appreciate them when they come. He has a natural, conversational style that make his musings feel very much like chatting with a friend over a couple of drinks. And, yes, it does feel like listening to a friend, which is kind of the point Bel's making.

Over the years a lot of bloggers I follow, most of whom used to write almost entirely about games and related hobbies, have slowly moved to include more and more personal material. These days it's probably the majority, including myself. Whatever we call these relationships we have, they can only be the stronger for it.

What relationships do we have, though? That's really what Bel's looking to define, I think, and as usual the main problem is one of language. Almost everything comes down to language in the end.

The last two or three decades or so have kicked up a whole flurry of new ways to communicate, some of which really have never existed before, even as analogies, in all of human history. We find ourselves needing to articulate the nuances while still tied down by the old ways of speaking. The old words. 

It doesn't always work. I'd say it mostly doesn't work.

Until we develop new language to express the gradations and granularity of the experiences there are going to be miscommunications and misunderstandings aplenty. It's not as though some of the language we're trying to use was all that accurate or effective even when we were employing it to describe regular face-to-face relationships.


Of all the difficult words the one Bel's struggling to define is perhaps the slipperiest. Just talk to any socially active six-year old and see how many kinds of "friend" they can name. As adults we may not be able to put all our friends in strict numerical order or keep mental (or written) records of which have been demoted from or promoted to "Best" this week but we still have close friends and work friends and old friends and good friends and drinking friends (okay, drinking buddies)...

So far we don't seem to have settled on either the terminology or the definitions for friends we know solely through a screen and a keyboard. Or maybe when I say "we" I mean those of us who grew up when that wasn't the way you "made" friends. I suspect any Gen Z teens sufficiently lost in the backwaters of the web to come upon this wouldn't have much difficulty in finding the language to express concepts that would, to them, feel as natural as breathing. Or talking.

Here in this corner of the blogosphere, we all grew up with the internet. Many of us grew up on it. Still, we did so in a society that either barely knew it existed or treated it with deep suspicion. All of us have made accomodations with the technology and for many of us it now feels natural but it will never feel inevitable. We were just born too late for that.

Which is not to say there aren't precedents, nor that we shouldn't be able to parse the differences better than we sometimes do. Does no-one remember pen-friends?

When I was growing up it was relatively commonplace for people to have "pen-friends". It could be someone you met on holiday or a relative who lived far away. Someone you'd met with face-to-face but with whom you now communicated only by letter.

That was one kind. Another, probably the more common, was someone whose name you'd been given at school, where such relationships were actively promoted, or that you'd found in a classified advert in a magazine. Remember those? Classified ads, I mean, not magazines, although it won't be too long before they'll be all but forgotten too. 


All kinds of publications carried Classifieds. People did every kind of business there but also they socialized. They met like-minded individuals for all kinds of mutual purposes, many of which necessitated meeting up in person. 

Meetings like that could lead to marriage or murder. Probably not murder so very often although that's what your friends would warn you might happen when you told them you were going to meet someone you'd met through an ad. Mrs. Bhagpuss and I met that way in the very early '90s. We haven't murdered each other yet.

The Pen Friend Wanted section didn't carry those fears or expectations but it had the word right there in the name: Friend. People corresponded for years, decades, without ever meeting up in person. It was something acceptable, understood, even encouraged. To have a "pen friend" was something you could admit to, even modestly boast about, in polite society.

I had one once. It lasted about two or three letters. It was in the mid-80s when I was reading Smash Hits, where they carried lots of ads from people seeking musically-minded pen-friends. I used to glance at them and wonder who would ever reply. Then one day I found it would be me. 

I was at a loose end and I thought how very cool it would be to have a pen-friend in America so I wrote to someone in California, who clearly thought it would be cool to have a pen-friend in England, since she'd taken the trouble to advertise in an English magazine. 

We wrote a couple of long, chatty, excitable letters. I sent her a plastic guitar and some other things because she told me she collected stuff like that. She sent me something I can no longer remember. I got her name wrong on the second letter I sent her. She still replied. 


She told me she might be coming to England. We talked about meeting up. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to. I imagine she wasn't, either. It's just one of those things you say. No-one means to do it. Or perhaps they do. You never know that, either, until it happens. I have an anecdote about that from my early internet days that's relevant but I'll save it for another post.

I have no idea if my pen-pal ("Pal", "friend", what's the difference? Plenty but we don't have time for that.) ever got to England. The correspondence fizzled out before then. It was one of those friendships not much different from those I had with so many people I met at gigs or at parties, then. The eighties - such a party decade! 

Just as on the envelope, in real life I got names muddled. Just as in correspondence, I saw people once or twice or now and then before we drifted away in different directions.

Would you call those people friends? You might, when you were with them. I would have. Remembering some of them now, because there are some I can remember, I still might.

We make the word "friend" do an awful lot of work. It can be everything from the person you'd jump in front of a bullet for to someone you'd find an excuse, any excuse, not to visit even on their deathbed. They're all "friends". Why should friends we meet on the internet be any different? 

I noticed, of late - and I mean just this year, really - without actually thinking about it I've begun using the term "internet friend" in offline conversation. Talking face-to-face with people about other people I know only through blogging or similar activities, I've been finding the need for a specific term and that's the one I've decided on, apparently.

For example, when my closest friend (Also ex-girlfriend, another complex relationship we don't really have the language for yet.) asked for a book on Bigfoot for her birthday, I linked her Belghast's post on his experiences then talked about it when I handed the book over. On both occasions I described the post as being by "my internet friend". 


When I mention Bel or Wilhelm or several other bloggers who come up up in conversation quite often in our house, these days I refer to them the same way. That's a change. Until recently I would probably have said "So-and-so, whose blog I read" or even "Someone I know on the internet." 

I still use that form of words for some situations but it feels inadequate when describing people I've known in some fashion for years now, whose personalities and lives I sometimes feel I understand at least as well as I ever did many "real life" friends from the past. For me, at least, the language does seem to be evolving.

Where it's headed though, I suspect, is just deeper into the same vague cloud of muddled meanings we already have. All I'm doing is adding another qualifying adjective to the already overburdened word "friend". 

I'm not suggesting any of my internet friends are necessarily people I'd share an astonishingly huge, unfeasibly affordable Manhattan apartment with (although I'm not saying I wouldn't do that, either...) nor that I'd drop everything to rush to their aid if the call came (although, again, not saying I wouldn't...) What I am saying is that I wouldn't necessarily do those things with "real life" friends, either.

The physicality of a relationship carries weight, of course it does, but physics isn't everything. Metaphysics matters too. And you don't get much more metaphysical than friendship.

Friends are whatever you want them to be, whatever they want to be, whatever they are. Don't worry too much about where you found them or what to call them. Just be happy they're there.


  1. I think part of the weirdness also comes from the awkward grey area of never quite knowing where you stand with someone you've conversed with at length online. In person our other senses kick in to give us a feel based on body language or intonation how someone is receiving our interaction. Online it is extremely hard to interpret intent from text on screen. It is extremely easy to misinterpret what one person might see as observing social protocol as someone being extremely forward for example.

    There are also a good number of times where my brain and my heart are of two completely different minds on a subject. There is the analogy of the elephant and the rider, where your logic and emotions are ultimately fighting for control of who is determining what direction you are going to go. Right now I understand the logic of the present situation that lead to my post, but the "elephant" still feels a little bewildered and betrayed.

    You are correct though that "friend" is very imprecise language that we are asking to do a lot of work. For example I always develop friendships in whatever work environment I am in. However I have this truly awful history of actually staying in touch with anyone that I worked with in the past once it is no longer convenient. It wasn't a purposeful decision that I made, just once our paths no longer crossed on the regular it became too much "friction" to force them to cross again.

    If I am being completely honest the same is true with a lot of the folks that I have played games with throughout the years. I might remember them fondly, and then have others that I can't really remember the names of at all but are instead left with this vague general memory. I always feel bad when I forget, like I am somehow failing. However as someone who has lead so many guilds over the years, it is mechanically impossible I think to remember everyone with crystal clarity. Then there is also that inner circle that I have communicated with multiple times a day regardless of what we happen to be doing at the time. Yet as you said... both are trying to be identified by that same term.

    Side note... I also really enjoy it when one of us lets our real life slip into the game feed. I feel like it gives us a tiny glimpse into the lives behind the curtain. It isn't that I think any of us are necessarily being evasive about our lives, just that we don't always have opportunity to really talk about it.

    1. There's just no real way to add body language to the online experience that really works. Emotes, emojis, dance, they're all like trying translate War and Peace into semaphore (which I bet someone has tried). I guess it might begin to be possible with VR but we're a long way off still, I think. For something like the "metaverse" that Raph Koster and various others like to say they're working on, a meaningful version of body language is going to be essential, I think. All the fictional versions I know assume those kind of signals are there and working, which allows the authors to pretty much treat cyberspace environments as though they were the same as physical ones, only with added magic for special effects.

      I deliberately avoided mentioning voice in the post, though. I rarely use it but it does obviously change things a lot. We've never really had the equivalent of "telephone friends" the way we had pen-friends, or not to my knowledge, but of course most people have had extensive experience of maintaining pre-existing relationships via telephone. A lot of people report it as being difficult and unsatisfying but now we have almost universally available voice with video with Skype, Zoom etc. so the whole thing is getting more and more complicated. I'm not sure how close to a face-to-face relationship you can get with both voice and video but it has to be closer than either alone.

      One thing I would say for certain from my own experience is that I've had very similar problems with friendships in and out of game, online or offline. It probably is easier to misinterpret things online and also easier to go too far in terms of emotional reactions to various disturbances but I absolutely have done both of those things in face-to-face situations. Real life rage quits are definitely a thing!

      As for remembering friends of all stripes, I strugle to remember names but I can remember people and, in game, characters. When Mrs Bhagpuss and I talk about people we spent a lot of time with in games years ago we can often describe their characters, things about their personality and things we all did together, but we can't remember either their real names, if we knew them, or the names of their characters. I think it's probably more important to remember the things we do remember but it would be nice if I could remember both.

  2. Nice post. I'd add that for gamers there's a continuum from people you know through in-game chat about the game, to ones you chat about IRL things with, to ones you actually speak to on voice comms and can associate a voice with the tag, to face to face contact.

    Not all of these relationships are symmetrical, either. YouTubers and streamers, especially, tend to share a lot (sometimes too much) on the internet. My younger daughter watches some (irritating, banal) YouTubers and knows about, and wants to copy, the foods they eat and the places they go on holiday. They're people she knows a great deal about and follows every detail of their (irritating, banal) lives. However, they don't know she exists. This has necessitated a parental conversation or two, as these aren't her friends - these are celebrities (loosely defined) that she is a fan of. It's also resulted in a 10 year old girl insisting on going for sushi because her idols keep going for sushi - as a result, she now knows that she doesn't actually like sushi :)

    1. The whole thing of celebrities-as-friends adds another level of complexity entirely. It's not even remotely the invention of digital technology, either. It probably goes back to the dawn of civilization. Roman gladiators used to shout out product endorsements to the crowd, presumably on the understanding that there were people out there who wanted to eat and drink what they did so as to re-inforce their imagined connection.

      As for young girls, they've been the target of marketeers keen to exploit those asymetric friendships for as long as I've been around. Not to say that boys weren't subject to the same kind of imaginative leaps outsied of objective reality. I think we all used to read those "interviews" where pop and movie stars revealed their favorite breakfast foods and preferred pets and even if we did it "ironically" we still paid some attention to anything the ones we liked might say.

      As for sushi - *everyone* eats sushi now. When did that happen? And more importantly, why?

    2. Don't ask me, I don't like sushi either. Japanese food of choice in our household is the katsu curry - which is the Japanese interpretation of Indian food as served on visiting ships of Her Majesty's Royal Navy in Victorian times. So that's either double cultural appropriation or a heartwarming example of global integration. Either way, it tastes good.

  3. I was kind of hoping you'd take a screenshot from My Time at Portia for this post. Not sure why, but it just fits.

    And yes, I've had plenty of the same concerns about the mini-Reds as you have about your kids. I limited their online activities to an hour at a time, kept an eye on where they landed, webpage-wise, and kept up with the people they followed. ("Who is Pewdiepie?" I once asked. "OH OH OH! He's soooo funny!" was the reply of one of them. Thankfully they outgrew Mr. Pie.)

    1. Yeah, MTAP is pretty much a friendship simulator if played a certain way. There are quite a few of those now and very popular some of them are, too. Then there's the layering of in-game PC/NPC friendships with in-game PC/PC friendhsips with out-if-game PC/PC friendships that becomes possible in something like Animal Crossing... it gets very complicated. If I was in academia I'd be working on that right now.

  4. As someone who met his wife via Usenet, got involved, fell in love, all before meeting physically (this all sounds rather tawdry, or used to) I know the power of making these sorts of connections. Communication with each other without the physical getting in the way is quite powerful. Obviously less true now that video is reasonably common, but often we are getting to know someone outside video. First impressions, and all that.

    Now, as has been mentioned, friendship is one of those words that really needs a qualifier with it whenever it is used. Friendship is such a spectrum that you eternally see misinterpretations about it. I mean, we've all seen someone complain that their friends didn't help them when things got rough. Yeah, that's because one side viewed it a 'thick and thin' friendship and the other as 'casual' friendship. Unfortunately, English is not built that way.

    1. The way people meet and form relationships, both friendships and romances, has been changing the whole time I've been alive. I was listening to an old radio sitcom from the 70s the other day (or it might have been the 60s even) and the storyline revolved around dating agencies. Do those even exist any more?

      They must have been common then, because my rule of thumb for cultural norms is anything that features in a contemporary sitcom from broadcast media. Sitcom writers rely on recognition from a mainstream audience so they're usually well behind cultural trends, which have to be fully established before they get included.

      The received wisdom for much of my life has been that the three places most people form friendships/romances are school, further education and work. We've even had the government recently using that assumption to try and persuade homeworkers to return to the office on the grounds that if they don't they'll never get married! The other rule of thumb for cultural norms is that anything the government tries to legislate for or against has already happened and isn't likely to change, so I think we can assume the days of needing a workplace environment to find a partner are over.

  5. I used to use the term "internet friends" but kind of stopped because I've had more and stronger friendships with people online than with people I met IRL for so many years now, it seems odd to qualify them. But then I'm also married to someone I met in a video game, so probably a bit of an outlier.

    I still say "blogger friends" though, because my relationships with other bloggers are still something that confuse me a lot. I'm wary of falling into the parasocial relationship trap, being very aware that just because I follow someone and read their stuff, that doesn't mean they're necessarily even aware of my existence. But at some point it can become mutual, when you talk in comments and they start reading your blog too. I'm just never sure when exactly. How many comment exchanges does it take before it "counts"?

    When you suddenly broke a streak of daily posting two (?) years ago after also having been ill in the months before, I remember being surprised by how much I was concerned by the sudden silence, worried that something might have happened to you. At the same time I felt weirdly guilty for having those feelings, as if I was being wildly inappropriate for caring so much about someone whose blog I read. I still felt that way when I emailed Wilhelm to ask if he'd heard from you, but I just had to know. :P So not only are friendships complicated because of the many different levels there are, but also because sometimes you don't even know for sure how you feel about someone until something disrupts the status quo.

    1. That's a really good example. Sorry to have worried you back then but thanks again for your concern, which I very much appreciated at the time, as I did the good wishes of several bloggers and commenters. Even Bree from MOP stopped by in the comments to wish me well which cheered and surprised me since as far as I know she'd never commented here before. That shows how far the ripples travel.

      I know what you mean about the feelings seeming not appropriate or maybe out of proportion but feelings are feelings. I've heard so many stories of relationships and friendships being troubled by differing levels of reaction to things like the death of a pet or a celebrity. I think we need to accept that different people have different levels of emotional connection and attachment to different people, entities and things and just let the emotions be our guide to how "real" or appropriate those connections are.

      It does all too often seem to be illness or even death that gets us to express the kind of reactions that confirm there are, indeed, friendships of some description going on here. I can think of quite a few sad examples along those lines but fewer of more positive equivalents like marriages or births, which tend to get a more muted response even when they do happen.

      I hope the more we all talk about and acknowledge this part of the whole online experience the more natural it will feel. I might not do another whole post about it though! Once is probably enough.


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