The real value of online friendships (Hadley Freeman revisited)

At the end of December there was an article by Hadley Freeman in the Guardian, characterising the past decade as a decade of fakery: fake science, fake politics and fake friendships connected only by Facebook. At the time, I criticised the article, but things I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks have put the issue of online friendships into sharper relief as there are people to whom this could be the only means of having any social life.

Last Tuesday, the Guardian published on its website an article by Emily Levick, who suffered from severe ME for some time and was part of the same online community of sufferers as Lynn Gilderdale, who was known as Jessie Oliver within that circle although some of them did know her real identity. Many of them could not get out and have a social life, because the normal means of doing so were impossible. Many were housebound and others were confined to bed. Lynn herself spent all but the first few months of her illness lying down; she could not even hold her head up without passing out. She also could not speak.

So, their computers and internet connections were a lifeline to them. They were able to interact with others who shared their interests or needs as equals, rather than from a position of dependancy. They would have been able to find others in the same situation in other parts of the world; distance would not have mattered, as even if there had been someone in the same condition living nearby, physically making contact would have been almost as impossible as if they were far away or on another continent. Some of them also used their connections to help with campaigns and raise awareness of their condition, such as via the 25% ME group (the pictures on the masthead are both of Lynn), and to pursue other interests.

There are, admittedly, examples of fakery in online and other long-distance friendships. People can conceal things about themselves and present an entirely different face to the one their family and (if they have any) offline friends see. The BBC producer Victoria Brignell wrote an article a few months ago about how she has maintained a penfriend relationship with a lady in Australia since she was 13, never having mentioned that she is paralysed from the neck down. As she explains it, she saw an opportunity to have a relationship with someone that was not affected by her disability; this person would not see her wheelchair or her dependancy on others for very basic things. She never lied, but just left out the bits relating to being paralysed. More recently, she decided to tell her friend about it. She has not told us the result yet!

Is this kind of concealment a bad thing? In my opinion, not really, unless the deception is for gain or intended to harm the other person. I would also say it was immoral to conduct a relationship with someone on an entirely false pretence, such as pretending to be something entirely different from what one is, such that they would not have had a relationship with you if they knew. It is sometimes possible to present a different face online when one’s communication is less encumbered by physical limitations. Whoever saw Lynn Gilderdale in real life would have seen a very ill and dependant woman who could not readily communicate, and some of them described her as a vegetable (she never was); those who knew her as Jessie Oliver online knew someone who was very vibrant and articulate. As one of her friends explained on Facebook, “her explanation [for using a pseudonym] was basically that as she became strong enough to use her pda to come online she could create a world which was just hers that her family and the campaigners who knew her family were not involved in not as any disrespect to them, but purely for independance … maybe jessie was her life her soul, jessie was who we saw, because online she could get across the personality which was so strong and beautiful which she just couldnt get across in her semi paralysed state in which she couldnt even eat drink or speak”.

And besides, do people not conceal and hide things from their face-to-face friends, even family? Of course they do. You cannot hide obvious things, but you can keep secrets of things you do (or don’t do) at certain times of day when people are not looking, for example; this could be a medical procedure, an act of religious devotion, or something like meeting the girlfriend your wife doesn’t know about.

However, I hope everyone gets the message that online friends are not necessarily fake and are a huge source of support to those who cannot find friends any other way, for whatever reason, including because they find that the people they meet every day are not exactly friend material. In addition, it is common even for face-to-face friendships to be conducted partly online, or to move to a more online basis when one party moves far away, such that more contact is available than was the case twenty years ago, when long-distance phonecalls were expensive and correspondence took days. I agree that the term “friend” is used for any online acquaintance, such that someone can “friend” someone else they have never heard of. But online friends can also be real friends.

I expected Emily Levick’s article to be in the print edition some time last week, and I was disappointed to find that it did not appear. I wrote the author and told her that it was “one of the most powerful articles I’ve read in ages”, and have also written the Guardian to the same effect as well as a very brief criticism of Hadley Freeman’s article. The article was part of their “First Person” strand, which used to be a two-page spread and often featured very interesting and sometimes moving personal stories. More recently, they amalgamated it on a two-page spread with their “private lives” advice column, itself somewhat impoverished with Linda Blair gone, and now it seems to have disappeared entirely. Perhaps “human interest” stories are too downmarket for the Guardian, unless there is a political agenda attached to it (as with recent stories about foster care in north London and stalking). In the case of this particular article, perhaps the Guardian felt that it reached its target audience online.

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