A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook notification about a friend request. Jean Philippe had just added me on Facebook. Now, to explain who Jean Philippe is, I’d have to go back about 11 years ago, when my parents first connected our computer to the internet. At an awkward age, feeling as insecure as most teenagers do, I started joining all sorts of forums and chatrooms and suddenly from a small room in my house, I was connected to the world. That was exciting stuff.
I would log on the official X-Files website and forum and learn about upcoming episodes that would be shown years later on Greek TV. There I met Panayiotis, who became one of my first online friends that I would never get a chance to meet. The only thing I remember about him is that he was Cypriot and he decided against becoming a doctor after he attended an autopsy. The latter must have been brought in the conversation because of Dana Scully’s work habits I presume.
Then came the chatroom (the name eludes me at this point) where I met Jean Philippe. He was to become my pen-friend for a long time after that until letters stopped coming at my box some time after I finished school. And IRC, where I met my first boyfriend a few years later and where I met many that were my dearest friends at the time. For anyone that used to chat in those first social networking communities, those were some very happy days. I remember that I used to spend hours talking to people I had never met about everything, from school homework and fights with friends to football and politics. There’s something exhilarating (and very often potentially disturbing) about talking to someone that you’ve never seen, heard or met in your life. You can either drop any masks that you’re wearing and be completely open and honest about who you are or put on the mask that you want and create a new character that is more like the person you’d like to be.
The reason I started reminiscing about those happy days doesn’t only have to do with the recent friend request. Recently, I watched two movies inspired by Facebook. One of them was the Social Network and the other one – that struck me the most – was Catfish. Catfish is centred a young photographer and his quest to meet the family of a little girl that has been drawing paintings of his photographs. The girl befriends him on Facebook and his relationship with her whole family unfolds. H
I don’t want to give away the ending in case you want to go out and see it but it’s definitely not what expect from the movie when you first see the trailer. It deals with the realities of social networking today and with what online relationships with total strangers can mean for certain people’s lives. The particular story is a bit on the extreme side but in its first half it wonderfully portrays the genuine excitement that follows every instance of communication between the newfound friends. Something that many of the Internet generation are familiar with for years now.
What the movie also shows is the incessant need to communicate in whichever way possible. Facebook, instant messaging, emails, texts and phone calls, all serve not so much to annihilate the distance as to bring people closer in a different way. Since the first chatrooms started spreading like mushrooms online, the accusations about how real communication was being lost and how we were substituting real life for a life on the web were common. It seems that that chatter has died down a bit.
Many years on, the options for connecting with each other have multiplied and the possibilities are endless. From instant messaging programmes and social networks to blogs and open to commentary articles, people like to talk to one another whether they know each other or not. Yes, of course, there are cases when things can go awfully wrong but as in most social situations that involve humans, you can never really know but you can take the necessary precautions.
No-one can deny how comforting relationships like that can be. You’re stuck home on a Saturday night because you’re feeling sick, you stare at screen boringly and suddenly a notification that a distant friend is online. You exchange a couple of YouTube clips, laugh about the old television shows you haven’t watched in years and all is well with the world.
What about you? How many of online friends do you have that you’ve never met or even talked to in your life?