Last month I found myself worrying about a friend of mine who was going through a tough time. Kim had just lost a friend and was headed to Louisiana for the funeral, so I wouldn’t be hearing from her for a week. I told her I was sorry and that I was there for her and then she left. Funny thing is, I’ve never met Kim. I only know her because I love to play Left 4 Dead. I’ve never even seen a picture of what she looks like and I’m only 98% sure that Kim is even her name. With all those layers of abstraction, you’d think it would be difficult for me to call her a friend, but I’ve come to realize that there can be value in the tenuous, ephemeral online friendship, so long as it doesn’t replace the ones you have in your physical life.
The first friend I ever had who I never met was back when I was about twelve. My family had moved back to Florida a year prior and I had finally overcome the intense social barriers of being the new kid and starting a new level of school at the same time. The circle of friends I had developed was, oddly enough, composed almost entirely of people who used to torment me at every turn the year prior. One of those friends, Josh, had an elementary school friend who had moved away to Connecticut right before middle school started. I don’t remember the circumstances behind it, but I somehow because friends with Abbe (that was her name) through an e-mail chain and eventually started chatting with her on a regular basis.
It wasn’t the great friendship that defined my life and I don’t think I’ve talked with her since I was 14, but for someone who I’d never actually met in the flesh, we had a pretty decent friendship. She and a friend called my house and we talked on the phone once or twice (she told me once my voice was sexy (for a 13-year-old)), but beyond that most of our conversations took place over AOL Instant Messenger. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, aside from a particularly strange health teacher she had, but I do know that she was an interesting friend in my life who I’m surprised I’ve never forgotten, considering I have no idea what she looks like anymore (I saw a picture once).
I don’t think I made any strictly online friends again until I was 20 during my junior year at Cornell. At the encouragement of my friend Chris, I started playing World of Warcraft again (I had quit the year before the first time Ashley broke up with me) on his server with the intention of hanging out with him and his roommate in-game. My character, Torvalds (named after the Master of Penguins himself), was able to power level up to level 60 during my fall semester and start attempting to join guilds not long after. I eventually managed to make my way into my guild of choice, Revelation (which, sadly, no longer exists on Cenarion Circle), and started working working on the last bit of endgame content before the expansion pack, slowly building up a group of friends on the way.
After winter break, the expansion pack came out and, as one of the junior warlocks in the guild, I was assigned to the B team, which also happened to be the West Coast team. Thanks to my luck, this meant that I was raiding Karazhan twice a week starting at 2300 and going to 0300 the next morning on days when I had an 0800 class. Needless to say, I missed a lot of class that semester (and my grades suffered from it), but the crummy conditions and B-Team status combined to form a strong sense of camaraderie. We used to get yelled at for not completing the dungeon fast enough, but that’s probably because most of our nights were filled with laughter and jokes instead of serious boss planning as we cleared our way up to our weekly boss wall.
Whenever I think about going back to WoW, it’s because of these guys: Moonsbreath, a school nurse from California by day and a Tauren Resto Shaman by night, Samuwen, our Orc Hunter team leader and a copy store employee by day, and Emil, our Undead Warrior tank whose profession I did not know, but whose infant child often made nightly cameos during our raids. On nights when we were mixed in with the entire guild, you could bet that we’d still be joking around with each other either over Ventrilo (we were easily the most talkative bunch outside of the guild leader) or through the in-game whisper system. The night that our guild leader, Athen, disbanded the guild to leave WoW was a devastating blow to everyone. We all tried to hold it together for a few nights, but the loss of direction caused our merry band to disperse to the winds. More than one of us quit the game, myself included, which spelled the end for our friendships since none of us knew each other in real life.
When thinking about these virtual friendships, it becomes clear that the worst part about them are their delicate, ephemeral nature. Their very existence often relies on the medium within which they are created. Just like that, our guild disbanded and I lost three cool in-game friends. When I returned to WoW for a month or two last year, some of these guys were still around, but the construct which formed our relationship was gone and it just wasn’t the same.
When I met Kim I thought it was actually going to be kind of different. My roommate, Darek, and I liked to play Left 4 Dead online with an old friend of his from university named Eric. One day Eric invited Darek and I to join a game that Kim was in. Her general friendliness with Eric and Darek, both of whom seemed to know Kim, made me assume that she was also a former classmate. Since she was associated with real people I knew, that made her a more “real” friend than the other ones I had made online. I later found out (nearly a year later) that Kim randomly met Eric playing a different zombie video game and that they’d been playing together since.
I wouldn’t say that Kim and I were best friends or anything, but we’ve got enough of a rapport that people who play with us for the first time assume that we actually know each other in real life. We both know what the other does for a living, but beyond that, I’d say that the only two things we know about each other are our personalities and how good we are at Left 4 Dead.
Thanks to the more robust communication tools available through Steam, I don’t worry so much about losing touch with Kim if I were to stop playing Left 4 Dead, but it does worry me that, should she decide to quit games forever, I’d probably never talk to Kim again. That’s where the other boundary with online friends rears its ugly head again. I don’t even know her name, so I couldn’t just friend her on Facebook. If I were to visit Texas (where she lives) would it be normal to hang out with her?
It’s clear that the world of online, anonymous communication can be socially interesting and rewarding, but it’s also full of strange perils and confusing social conventions that seem like they could be just as paralyzingly complex to the socially inept. The lack of real life contact is perhaps the most pressing issue with online friendships. Sure, I can hear the voices of all my friends thanks to fast, cheap VoIP, but with no real way of contacting each other, we could, I dunno, die, and no one would be the wiser. We’d just assume that the other person left our online space for greener pastures.
That’s no way to have real, lasting relationships, in my book, but as the relationships with my former classmates become increasingly digital due to distance, it’s becoming clear to me that many of my relationships are facilitated primarily through 1′s and 0′s, not any kind of human contact. It’s mostly thanks to her job that I find myself seeing Kai so often, but 75% of our interaction comes from blogs, tumblr, and twitter. Some of my other friends, like Lee, Yin, and Duffy, I see far less often and talk to only through gchat. I’m kind of losing my way here with respect to any point I might have, but suffice it to say that I’m infinitely glad that technology has allowed me to make and keep all of these friendships.