We’ve been living through a social experiment these past ten years or so. The internet and the way people have connected with one another as a result of it is something entirely new for our species. We have been the pioneers. Of course in my youth there was the pen pal. Not a high tech phenomenon but broadly similar and there have been for many years radio hams so I am aware that the whole communicating with strangers from far flung places which one has neither visited nor is ever likely to see is not a new experience for the human race. However neither of these comes close to the all pervading life changing role blogging and above all social networking have played in affecting the way in which we interact with other humans.
The net is a mirror of something we have taken to calling real life to distinguish the old life from the new. For surely there is nothing less real in what I am doing now than there is in writing a shopping list, a letter, an essay or a report. I sit, I write. Equally there is nothing unreal about you reading it. No different than you reading a book, poem, note scrawled on a blackboard in the kitchen from a loved one or a final demand. Where the difference lies between the new reality and the old is that increasingly, as the years pass, we are forming bonds not unlike friendship. We create demons, harbour grudges and in extreme cases fall in love and even murderous hate with those we ‘meet’ in this giant social revolution. And yet still the nagging sense that this is not ‘real’ colours the edges for my generation. I know it’s different for my children, their lives are so fully integrated there is no gap between their online and offline existence, indeed their phones are much, much more than just mobile telephones. To them they are like an organic part of themselves, a vital link to their friends, family, the news, shopping, weather, sport, film, music without which they are blinded, deafened and bereft. We learned very early on as parents that the naughty step held little fear and abhorring violence and sickened at the very thought of ‘teaching’ our children to obey us through its use or even the suggestion of it we instead came up with the peculiarly horrible and sinister threat to take away their phones. Like offering to excise a section of their hearts and their brains if they didn’t eat their peas. It worked.
Yet still we persist with the distinction between our real and unreal lives. It isn’t really that complicated I know. Having lived for the best part of forty years without being umbilically linked to the world wide web every second of every day me and people like me are bound to see a separation between how we once lived and our current reality. And so the things that really cement and alter online friendships are tangible meetings or contact with your online friend. You actually get to see this person who you’ve spoken to at a remove for so long and suddenly realise how little you really know them, or you speak on the phone and they confound the mental audio track you had subconsciously ascribed to their voice by having an accent at odds with the one you chose for them. But once past this initial dislocation you feel you can really begin to get to know them.
Years ago I met a guy I’d got to know on a forum devoted to players of the bass guitar. Four stringers like me with our barely concealed grudge against charismatic singers and show off guitarists could login and find solace in taking the piss out of drummers. There was also a for sale section and I bought an out-sized guitar case from this chap which he assured me was just what I needed to protect my Aria semi acoustic. We met as arranged at Magor services on the M4, did the deal, exchanged brief pleasantries and went our separate ways. A thoroughly nice chap I thought.
And then he died.
I went back on the bass guitar forum to find it a place of deep mourning. He had been a thoroughly nice chap to everyone else who had had dealings with him, giving his time to help what were effectively strangers and always being honest and trustworthy in his buying and selling. I was bewildered. Shocked and saddened of course but unsure how to feel or what to do with the feelings I had. The guy, who’s real name I didn’t know having only communicated by the internet noms de plume we had both adopted, was an occasional presence in my life, at one remove, but a man of whom I had formed nothing but positive opinions, he was also a man I could turn off, block and never hear from again at the press of a button. Not that I had any desire to do so and I had no need to play God in such a way, now that a far more powerful hand than mine had flicked the switch permanently and for all of us.
I’ve been thinking of my all too brief acquaintanceship at a Welsh motorway service station today because, for the second time in as many months I’ve experienced the same dislocated harrowing sense of shock and loss at the news of the death of someone I knew only via the internet. Apart from bass guitars the other two reasons I frequent online fora and solicit advice and feedback, views and opinions are photography and football. I believe we can build a very clear picture of who we are talking to after a few years and in the photography forum I was happy to call Jeroen Prins a friend. We shared more than just pictures, chatting about family and music and the usual day to day stuff that friends everywhere like to share. The great thing about digital photography is I was able to watch his daughter growing up through he pictures he shared and could see the pride and love which poured from him and his wife in every photograph. Even though we never met (he did meet up with my Mum when she visited Amsterdam, taking time out to act as an impromptu tour guide for her and her friend and unsurprisingly she said he was, in real life, precisely the man we had assumed him to be from our online friendships).
Recently, when he posted news of his daughter’s death in South Africa after a car crash, I felt the air go out of me as if I’d been punched.
Again the bewilderment, the inability to know what to do with the grief were palpable, physical. One can send condolences of course but when you are screaming inside with the need to hug someone written messages seem to offer scant comfort. The pictures he posted of her memorial were quite simply heartbreaking and I cannot fathom how he and his beloved wife will find the strength to carry on nor how their lives will ever be free of the sadness which must be overwhelming.
And now I sit here on a rainy Saturday morning when usually my thoughts would be full of football with its pantomime villains, its heroes du jour, its hopes and fantasies, rivalries and loyalties and yet I am unable to raise an interest in the fixture list. I am once again winded, knocked sideways by the news of the death of Zimpaul. Last night I read a text as I was going to bed. It was from another friend I’ve made in the unreal world and informed me that Paul had lost the battle against cancer, a one sided fight so many have so little hope of winning. Paul and I had in common a great passion, a love of Arsenal football club. I wanted to go to the forum where he shared his calm, intelligent and thoughtful wisdom with the rest us and join the RIPs and I might well do just that, but for now sending him my best wishes and thanking him when I know he cannot and will never be able to read my words seems a hollow gesture and one involving a trip into a realm of unreality which makes the internet seem a whole lot more a part of real life than it otherwise might.
I shan’t eulogize here. Those who read his words or were fortunate enough to have met him will be well aware of his quality (or maybe I should paraphrase Arsène and say top, top qualities) but at the same time I just don’t know what to do with the grief with which I awoke this morning. So I’m writing this.
It is absolutely the worse thing about online friendships, the brutal way in which they can be terminated through the trivial act of blocking, unfollowing, unfriending or by death itself. I’ve done it. In a fit of piqued passive aggression I’ve cut communication with folk I’ve got to know in response to some supposed but probably unintentional or non existent slight. I’ve used my power to switch them off and sat in splendid isolation as the world turned without me, a petulant child self punished on his own naughty step. But this latest tragedy has made me realise the nasty, spitefulness of such actions. To leave someone with whom you have built a relationship not knowing if you are alive or dead is a pretty shabby way to behave and I shan’t do it again.
I know Zimpaul, Jeroen and the bassist from Newport would never have behaved like that and let’s face it the relationships we form online may not be real in the old fashioned sense but they are with real people and as such we should all strive to treat them with a little more respect.