In 2009, Bryan and I moved to a suburb of North Atlanta. Living in his parents’ basement and working night shifts at restaurants did a number on our social lives, by which I mean it killed them. Interaction with anyone, outside of family and coworkers, dwindled to nothing. Our closest friends were hours away, we were broke, and lonely. We needed to meet some new people, some post-college nerdy types like ourselves… but how could we afford to court new friends while counting change to pay the phone bill, or while bringing home extra food from work instead of grocery shopping? More importantly, if the first step to finding like-minded people was figuring out where they hang out, then where were we supposed to go to find these slightly hip, mostly nerdy adult types?
Bryan and I needed to find our spot, that place “our people” frequented. I envisioned them like magical, glasses-wearing unicorns—the kind that are only drawn out into open by the smell of a mint first edition UK hardcover copy of The Sorcerer’s Stone. But who were they really? They were nerds, like us. People who most commonly liked to hang out at home. On their laptops. On the internet.
It’s a blanket statement (and it’s just plain wrong) to say that nerdy communities do not exist out in the real world. They do. However, before the internet I could not tell you a single physical location I could seek out to sit with other people and talk about their favorite Animorphs character or how the idea that Pernese dragons have a lisp is ridiculous, unless it happened to be a really busy day at the library. Out in the suburbs, the likelihood of finding a comic shop or a barcade was laughable. This is what makes conventions amazingly exhilarating: it’s often the one place you can enjoy the physical company of many other people who enjoy these nerdy things as much as you do.
I say this to explain that without knowing any real community to try and break into, I turned to the internet as my first choice. On the internet, I could find people like me. People who liked everything I liked! Perfect! Into the tubes I went.
Over the course of months, I started bumping up my Twitter following, focusing on people near me. Perhaps I could charm them with my snappy humor 140 characters at a time. I put Atlanta in my tracked tags on Tumblr, thinking I’d draw the attention of another wandering soul with an undying love for reaction gifs. I became more involved in the Atlanta chapter for NaNoWriMo, an annual writing event that takes places primarily online.
At the kickoff event for NaNoWriMo 2010, I met the E-Ks. They were a friendly, enthusiastic couple, had recently moved to the area, and they were interested in a lot of things that I was interested in. After the kickoff I called Bryan and told him all about them, and how cool I thought they were. Already I envisioned how we’d bond at future events during the month, becoming fast friends.
They lived downtown, we lived an hour away. Most of the writing events were in the evening when I worked. Not to mention that month my steering column tried to fall out of my car, rendering me largely homebound. November passed. I followed the E-Ks on Twitter, hoping that we’d reconnect through some other shared interest.
Any invite extended in either direction missed the mark just a tiny bit. They were out of town, we couldn’t afford tickets for a concert, any number of excuses popped up. Not to mention the risk involved. Sure, we exchanged plenty of funny links back and forth, but would they like us if we sat down to coffee? Meeting people from the internet is great, but what if you meet a serial killer? What if they were just pleasant serial killers?
A year passed before we even saw each other again. Our friendship hadn’t grown at all; it remained as deep as your average kiddie pool in August. The internet access hadn’t helped me take the leap, but this time would be different. I had a decent job, a car reliable enough to drive to Atlanta, and this friendship was going to happen. Luckily, on the other side, the E-Ks were just as determined to find some cool people to hang out with more than one month out of the year. A drunk brunch party was planned, and then that brunch party turned into a monthly drunk brunch party, a Christmas tree decorating party, and spending New Year’s together. Then it turned into running weird 5Ks, weekly Game of Thrones viewing sessions, and even more drunk brunches.
Less than three months after our first real hangout, I stretched our wedding budget to invite our new little group of friends. It was one of the best decisions I made. Looking back now it feels strange and unreal that I’ve only known most of these people for less than two years. If someone told me that the biggest factor in my house hunt would be having enough living room space to hold this ridiculous number of close friends I have, my eyes might have rolled right out of my skull. But it’s true, and I count myself incredibly lucky.
With all this, it’s a reasonable conclusion that I am the number one cheerleader for creating your community and making friends through the internet. Wrong. I viewed the internet as my only option, but that simply wasn’t the case. I could have gone out with my coworkers and gotten to know them better. I could have had more conversations with those my age in our neighboring apartments. However, all of those routes to friendship seemed entirely more daunting. I am kind of an awkward person, I’ve never been especially social. Internet access only exacerbated it. I isolated myself believing I had plenty of friends, it’s just that I only communicated with them via text and the occasional trip. My Facebook friends numbered in the hundreds—plenty of community, plenty of shoulders to lean on, even if they weren’t physical. But my lack of any physical tie to a community contributed to a depression that was incredibly hard to pull up from. On the internet you can find hundreds of people just like you, but you never have to work at it when your relationship is nothing more than a mirror. There was no one around to support me, to make me push myself, to make me any better than I was.
The internet is not enough. It’s a place to start, the kindling for new beginnings, but it’s never a place to end. We can pretend that our online-only friendships are all we need, because we view them as almost perfect. We only see the best of our online companions, because they filter their lives as much as we filter our own online personas. And as much as they might like to, our online friends are not going to come over with soup when we’re sick, or feed our cats when we’re out of town. We live in a magical time where we can find almost anyone on the internet and bring them into our social circles with only a few clicks of a mouse. But the real work is bringing them into our living rooms and our lives. The real work is dealing with the fact that they are just as imperfect and annoying and wonderful as everyone else. Even when it’s awkward and hard. They make us better.
My internet friends are now my real-life friends. Sometimes they might be a real pain in my ass, but sometimes that’s just what I need from them. If I want another mirror, I’ll go buy one from IKEA. Right after I call in a friend to help me carry it home.
Photo: Gabriel Harber