If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Internet friends

Strange thing, the Internet (does it deserve that official-looking capital any longer?). For the first time in human history, it is possible to have as many friends that you have not met, as those you have. It's a while since I was a regular in any pub, with my own place at the bar and my own tankard on a hook above the pumps. And yet there are half a dozen places on the Internet where I have a similar experience - a crowd of like-minded people, exchanging gossip and advice, discussing things that seem important at the time, joshing each other and occasionally falling out. 'My Father's House has many mansions', and my Internet pub has many virtual bars, each with a distinct clientele, where I can go, at my choice, to discuss politics, or motorbikes (a different bar for each, and some for all makes), or anything else that takes my fancy.

And in one or two of those places, I have made what I regard to be good friends - people I like and trust, and yet whom I have never met. One of those was the guy in Denmark who invited me over. The first time I actually spoke to him or saw him in the flesh was at 10 pm, in the dark in the middle of the Danish countryside, after a thousand-mile thrash across Europe. I thought afterwards that this was a bit of a gamble - after all, what if he turns out to be a complete twat? But it all turned out very well - he was a great guy, as was his wife (not a guy, but you know what I mean), and so were all his Danish friends.

Another was a chap I met through a game we both played for a while. We got on so well, we kept on emailing each other, and after a year or so of this I had an invitation to his birthday party on the other side of the country. Again, a long way to go on spec; again, I had a great time and I was very glad I went. Curiously, this chap knows more about the real 'me' that anyone else, apart from my wife and a couple of very old friends that I have known since University. I find it very easy to make acquaintances, but very hard to make real friends, and this guy is one of the real friends, despite my having spoken with him face-to-face for less than a couple of hours.

A third would be a guy I know through a bike forum that we both frequent. He's posted comments here once or twice, and I have come to like his approach to things, and appreciate his intelligence. I've never met him, although I feel I know him as least as well as someone I have a beer with every week or so. When I was considering doing a round-Britain ride, he quickly offered me a meal and a bed for the night when I was passing through his locality, despite the risk that I might be a serial killer or a world-class bore (I am neither, but working on it.)

He had a bad experience this week. He took his bike in for a service, and was given a loan bike by the dealer. The loan bike had a £2000 excess on the insurance. He was going to the post office to post a parcel on the loan bike when a car pulled out in front of him. He only touched the brakes, but the roads were greasy, and the bike went down at about 50 mph. He's got to repair the bike, replace all his protective gear, and then pay for the service on top of all that. And he's torn this and bruised that and scraped the other.

Bummer, as they used to say.

On the positive side, he's flipped the coin (as we all do now and again) and it's come up heads. He's alive, not seriously hurt, and the damage is mainly to his pride and his bank balance. He's got his head screwed on the right way, and he won't be blaming anyone but himself for the accident. He'll put it down to experience, and will be a fractionally better rider as a result.

It's a tricky time of year to be riding. Round here, the leaves have fallen and are wet and slippery on the country roads that I inhabit. The light is getting poor, the sun is low in the sky both early and late, and there is often a lot of spray to make visibility difficult. Riding through Winter is easy, compared to the liminal, transitional state that is Autumn.

I wish him a speedy recovery from his injuries, and I hope he manages to find the two or three grand that it is going to cost him, all in all, without too much pain. If I were the dealer, I think I would let him off the cost of the service, just out of sympathy.

Good luck, mate. I'm thinking about you, even though haven't a clue what you look like, or how old you are.

That's the Internet for you.


  1. It is an interesting and paradoxical place, the internet: full of half-truths and half-secrets tailored for the public domain, yet underneath it all we leave a surprising number of genuine footprints.

    I don't think I've ever been the direct subject of a written internet article before, other than those I've written myself. My name'll come up on Google, it's true, but in articles written about events in which I participated rather than articles about me.

    So it's a bit of a first, and, by way of a validation of the good side of the internet - I wrote a very similar piece yesterday on the bike forum which analysed the crash involved and drew the conclusion that it was indeed rider error. A little unlucky in the consequences, but sometimes it's the smallest mistakes that earn the harshest punishments.

    There are those who bemoan t'interweb as a destroyer of human relationships and interactions. And I am prepared to believe that the semi-literate, txtspk-dominated shallowness of social networking sites whose only purpose is to obtain long lists of "friends" is a bit like that. Only a bit, in the sense that I am unconvinced those participating would have a great deal more to offer if met in person. I am also prepared to believe that there are plenty of people out there crafting their own imaginary persona with which to stun, impress and manipulate their viewing public: likewise, there is no shortage of those to be encountered in the real world.

    The truth is, though, it's just another medium for communication. Without such nuances as body language, or the benefit of direct conversation, it is a slower and more complicated process to develop a proper relationship - but eminently possible. And if sustained, and with a modicum of understanding of human nature, it is quite possible to figure out the important part of it all: whether you trust, respect and like the person at the other end of the line.

    And since I find myself in that position, I would just like to say thanks for this particular article: it means plenty, and has cheered me up despite the bruising and the empty wallet...

    That, indeed, is the internet for you!

  2. The txtspk generation: "I am unconvinced those participating would have a great deal more to offer if met in person."

    I have, reluctantly, a Facebook profile, and quite a lot of friends. Most of those are young people I work with, who have asked me to 'friend' them. In a way, that's very flattering, but I have all the 'updates' turned off, as I can't bear to read them. If you took your view from the Facebook comments, then they are all shallow, bitchy alcoholics, whose most profound utterance is "ZOMG!!!11! 5 bottles!!!1!! Suprized im still alive!!1!1! u hungovr 2 ???" And yet, in person, they are lovely people, many with partners and young children, very good at their jobs, and charming company. I guess it's just how things are these days.

    ZOMG!!!!111!1 Oldie alert!!!1!11 Dive 4 covr !111111!!!

  3. On re-reading, that does sound a touch harsh of me! It wasn't intended to be a blanket criticism of social networkers, merely an observation that there are a lot of weak-tie relationships floating around out there. Some of which, undoubtedly, could develop into stronger bonds, but it's awfully difficult to tell from the material available.

    My main issue with the concept is that much of it is non-selective broadcast, rather than genuine dialogue such as is found in a more purposeful environment like a forum. More like standing in a town centre and shouting: "Does anyone want to be my friend?" than starting a conversation with: "Nice bike: how does it handle?". Both may work, but the second option starts off ahead on points and is less prone to a bewildering case of white noise information overload.

    Which is not to say that social networkers are bad, or inadequate, or even tedious people. They're simply playing to a different audience and one that I personally don't find terribly appealing. If I already knew someone who happened to use "ZOMG" online (I don't - I had to look it up!), that'd be fine: if all I knew about them was that they favoured bad English*, then I wouldn't generally be bothered to find out any more!

    My loss in some cases, undoubtedly, but I believe there are plenty of nice people everywhere with whom I can have a casual acquaintanceship, most of which are largely interchangeable. There are far, far fewer who I would actively seek out to spend on- or off-line time with.

    * Mind you, I still do say "bummer", so I may be out of touch in some important respects.


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