Online Communities and Support “Networks”
Growing up as a nerdy unpopular awkward teenager is difficult in any time and space, I would imagine. Add “gay” on top of it, and you have the perfect recipe for becoming bully-material. But the perks of growing up in the advent of the internet (the dial-up/early broadband era) was that my internet connection allowed for human connection, beyond the tangible, palpable. My main support network was allowed by my internet network. Enough with puns.
In this day and age, we lament the anonymity of the computer screen. People feel entitled to voice their racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. ideas. Cyberbullying is also a very serious issue — I actually encourage everyone to watch Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk. But that is just one face of the coin, the one people enjoy talking about, but the same exact thing that can afflict bullied teens can also save them. Indeed, much like bullying extends beyond the classroom, so does support. After spending a horrible day at school, one may find solace in chatting with online friends, their real support network. That was indeed my situation. For someone with serious body image issues, online is the real way to connect with people, as fake as some people claim it to be. It is connection beyond the image in a world overwhelmed by images, it transcends the body. The friendship is based on written words alone, which is a beautiful thing, considering the depths of the conversation you can have without the barrier of the image and the difficulty of speech for people with social anxiety or simply shyness.
As well, the online medium allows for the complete reconstruction of one’s identity. Popular discourse likes to bash its apparent masking of identity. But is wearing a mask lying about oneself, or an act of agency towards the appropriation of oneself? I very much think it is the latter, and it is the main point I make in a forthcoming published academic publication. Without going into the 25 pages of details I provided in my paper, the creation of an online persona is not a lie, it is a work-in-progress, an eventual truth. Indeed, my online coming out prepared me for my real coming out, my online social circles helped me create my own in real life, and the many skills I’ve acquired online, from writing to community-building skills, all transpired in my everyday life. There is also something to be said about ostracized people forming communities on the margins of society. The cyberspace allows for the destruction of the whole idea of space. Borders do not exist — only time zones do. The language barrier is still there, but the written language masks it better. A best friend you talk to every day could in actuality reside in India. We are now accustomed to these notions, thanks to Skype and other apps, but it was truly groundbreaking as I grew up, and generated lot of skepticism and incredulity around me.
I was 12 when I joined my first online community (back when message boards were in vogue), and have remained extremely close to some of the friends I made there, talking to them almost daily, which is more than most of my real-life friends — not because I like them more, but perhaps because our whole relationship is based on our online communication, so “keeping in touch” isn’t a concept that exists in the context of our relationship. I never leave the cyberspace no matter where I move to or travel to, so I never leave these friends for as long as I have an internet connection. We always share the same space. This was always a problem for me, as I’ve led quite a nomadic life, made very many friends along the way but that I always ended up leaving, which makes keeping in touch difficult, as I couldn’t possibly find the time and emotional energy to contact 50 people regularly (it is very draining for me to be so close emotionally to someone and work at this connection online when it was based on real life connection). But that is not the case with my online friends, because we’ve never had this physical, bodily proximity. I still sincerely care for all the friends I’ve made in any time and space, and it is not a lack of love for them that makes keeping in touch difficult, but rather too much love which puts me in a spot where contacting them online underlines our distance, which hurts. However, I’ve already gone off-topic with this idea, so I might eventually write an article about this.