I'm really glad none of us listened to our parents about talking to and meeting strangers off the internet— MandaInLimine (@MandaInLimine) January 21, 2016
Which I also initially RT'd and then I got sucked down memory lane and ended up tweeting an abbreviated version of my Internet friends story, before realizing that it'd maybe be better on the blog. So welcome to a new regular-ish feature where y'all learn more about me than you needed or even wanted to know! At least until Twitter officially does away with the 144-character limit and I can opine into the void to my heart's content.
As a kid, I was definitely on the periphery. Even though I escaped being bullied (pure luck: there were kids who were much weirder than me; even though I was a fat smart girl, I knew how to play the game and keep my head down), I still orbited the social center of my growing-up from a fair distance.
It never bothered me much, because as an introvert I was perfectly content with just one or two good friends here and there. Daria was essentially my high school life—even when I participated in group things (and I did: orchestra, marching band, Reading Olympics, pit orchestra, debate team, trivia team), those groups never formed the core of my socializing. Most of the time, it was just me and my BFF (who joined me in orchestra, pit orchestra, and debate team).
But everyone, even introverts, can benefit from feeling like they belong to a cohesive group* and that's where the Internet stepped in for me.
I cannot mention Internet friendship without shouting out to the random group of friends I made, via an online play-by-post RP forum, on the opposite coast in the town of Eureka, CA. Things fizzled a bit after my Internet boyfriend (lolol) in the group dumped me and everyone went to college, but my West Coast Wander last year proved that there was still connection and friendship. In fact, I wouldn't have met up with the second group of Internet friends that would change my life in an even more profound way if it weren't for the first.
The second group I met on a message board for the now cringe-inducing Nickelodeon show Invader Zim, originally linked to me by one of my Eureka friends. After a slow, awkward start, I got to know a lot of the other members, and was invited to the first of an annual/biannual series of meetups that we dubbed MooseCon.
Now, I was 16 at the time, and this was when actual, honest-to-God socializing on the Internet came with warnings of STRANGER DANGER! An assigned reading I had for school at this point in my life was a memoir of one of the earliest Internet pedophile cases, called Katie.com. It was a book that felt selected for us teenagers as a DIRE WARNING from our CONCERNED TEACHERS.
As an adult, I recognize that Tarbox went through a terrifying and traumatic experience, and I'm glad that she seems to have become a proper badass now, who climbs mountains and runs marathons.
But as a teenage girl, I hated the book for a couple of reasons: first, I thought from the title it was going to be a badass, competent hacker chick and was looking forward to reading about a teenage girl's experience within hackerdom. Then I read the summary and was immediately deflated: it was just Internet STRANGER DANGER. If I were more articulate then, I would have said something about perpetuating the narrative of teenage girl victimhood rather than agency, but I wasn't that articulate, so it just stewed.
Second: at this point in my life, I had plenty of friends online. They formed a group, a cohesive group, where I finally was accepted and belonged, instead of just piecemeal friends here and there. And my experience with it had not been full of shady-ass child molesters, but other teenagers (and their parents). We were all normal (well, relatively) and we were all each other's closest friends. Where was the memoir about that? About the power of Internet friendship? Nowhere to be seen.
But even with all of the mass panic beginning to build over Internet predators (I had graduated by the time To Catch a Predator rolled around, but the famous New Yorker "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" joke had been well cemented into the public consciousness), my parents were either unaware or were just super chill. I think this was because I initially met basically everyone in safe, public spaces with my parents in tow: first, a Eureka friend stopped by during an East Coast vacation with his mother, and my parents got to meet him. It was a year or two later that the first MooseCon happened, and again my parents were with me, and again they saw that everyone from the Internet was a teenager more or less just like their kid.
Flying to San Antonio (under the supervision of my mother) for the next MooseCon was no problem. Later trips alone to Montreal, New Orleans, Ithaca, and Buffalo were considered par for the course. They even allowed me to invite a whole bunch into our home during what Swedes call "the in-between days" (mellandagar; the time after Christmas but before New Year's) on multiple occasions. They were collectively known to my parents as "my friends from Con."
I neglected to mention any romantic attachments during this time, only because I found the idea of discussing any romantic attachments with my parents off-putting, even the ones I had formed in real life. But when the time came to visit my overseas Internet boyfriend for the first time, my parents were more or less chill. Also, I was 19, so I was basically an adult.
(This is how I met JV, by the way. If you've ever been wondering, since I've sideways implied that I moved to Sweden for him: he is my teenage Internet Boyfriend.)
Con happened annually for 10 years. Ten years. Today we're (mostly) all still friends and connected on Facebook**, but since we're adults with jobs/limited funds/limited vacation time, large Cons happen maybe every other year, with small meet-ups arranged between people interspersed here and there. You wouldn't be able to tell based on our Facebook interaction—there isn't much of it between everyone publicly. But you can tell by the occasional post in our secret Facebook group (the original board we used to post on has been borked for years now because of a MySQL error and no one's been able to get in contact with the owner to fix it, even though the fix is trivial) that we're all there for each other: when someone's having a rough time or needs advice, the post never goes for long without a comment or a response. Couches are always available for crashing, the odd care package turns up here and there, comfort is always given. I'm still in touch with more of my Con friends (both in terms of percentage and in terms of raw numbers) than I am with anyone I ever knew in high school (that number is essentially: 1). For me, they were high school. Or they were the ethereal vision of what high school could and should have been, if only we weren't all so far apart.
So no, my parents actually never flipped their shit over me meeting people from the Internet, probably because they knew exactly who I was meeting. Nor were they fazed when I finally announced that I had an Internet boyfriend and asked if he could come visit over winter break. Whether they knew it or not, my parents rode the ~wave of the future~ with grace and sense. And now? Now I live in a foreign country with my boyfriend from the Internet (13th anniversary this April), and my family loves him and his family loves me.
Finally, I'd like to close with an incredibly apropos quote from Gibson's Pattern Recognition:
It is a way now, approximately, of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places of her life, like a familiar cafe that exists somewhere outside geography and beyond time zones.
*This statement probably backed up by science but I can't be fucked to go and get you the studies right now, so for now consider it "just, like, my opinion, man."
**I won't lie: this was the Internet and we did manage to attract a few weirdos who were too weird even for us, which led to a few geek socializing fallacies, but it's more or less sorted today.