Ten years ago, it was considered weird and possibly dangerous to make new friends via the internet. Now blogs, forums and chatrooms are ubiquitous and the stereotype of the sad loner socialising online has been overtaken by modern women using the internet to build whole new support systems.
A 2005 study by the Pew Internet Project in America found that roughly the same number of women as men use the internet, but the genders have different priorities. Men are interested in job opportunities and news, whilst women use the internet to maintain existing friendships and form new ones.
As an author and freelance journalist, Keris Stainton spends long stretches of time alone working or caring for her young son. ‘But,’ she says, ‘I never feel isolated and that’s because I have a virtual community.’ She’s made lots of online friends through her blog, www.keris-stainton.com. She’s also found virtual support through a forum for chick lit authors which she helped set up. This group has twenty members providing emotional and practical support in the same way as a “real life” writing group would – critiquing each other’s work, sharing support and gossiping over email. ‘They’re better friends than some of my so-called “real” friends,’ says Stainton. ‘I don’t know whether that’s sad or not.’ And she’s found the internet isn’t just good for making new friends: ‘I’ve also re-connected with my oldest friend who lives in America. We now email and read each other’s blogs whereas before the internet we just sent Christmas cards.’
Does Keris ever feel embarrassed about how she knows her online friends? ‘No, but I think we need a new vocabulary – when I say I know people from the internet I do get funny looks.’ Her husband doesn’t understand her online friendships: ‘He calls them my “nerds” but he doesn’t have any online friends. He just uses the computer for news.’
Fiona Blamey is director of Social Media company Prompt Communications. She recently completed an MA in Popular Culture, focusing on the cultural significance of blogging and online networking. She also has personal experience of online socialising – she even met her boyfriend via a chat forum. Blamey says that online friends often become “real life” friends too, using her cousin as an example: ‘She joined a dating and friendship site after moving to London from Scotland, and quickly built up a large social network in the city as a result.’ Blamey thinks a lot of people who socialise online are natural introverts and that online friendships help build confidence. Her own online friends have been a great source of comfort: ‘My mum died recently, and they’ve been really supportive.’
Psychologist Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University has studied online socialising and internet addiction. His research shows that the internet is liberating by its very nature. ‘People reveal themselves far quicker emotionally online as they feel it’s anonymous. My guess is that as we move more towards Skype-based communications [i.e. talking over the internet rather than typing] people will be more guarded.’ At present, the net is ‘a text-based virtual reality where you are defined totally by what you say rather than how you look.’
That’s especially attractive to people with a disability or long-term health problem. Helen Tunney has had ME since 1995 and for two years was so ill she couldn’t move, talk or even blink. When she started to recover, the internet gave her a way to connect with the outside world. She first logged on in 2001 and was fascinated: ‘I became addicted overnight. Because I was housebound it opened up a whole new world through my computer.’ While researching treatments for her condition Helen stumbled across a message board for people with ME – something she’d had no idea existed. She feared that talking to others in the same situation would be too depressing but found online support just the opposite: a place she could forget about how bad she felt and make new friends who understood her situation. Helen also found new friends via general chat forums, where she kept her illness a secret. She says, ‘I couldn’t be a normal person in my real life but I was online.’ She credits her internet friends with helping her recovery: after being so ill she had forgotten how to interact so online friendships gave her a huge confidence boost.
Whether due to relocation, new motherhood, working from home or illness/disability, online friendships allow women to socialise without the loneliness that big life changes can bring. Surely this way of connecting can only become more commonplace? Helen Tunney describes it as ‘a new way of living.’
Dr Griffiths says that online socialising is bound to grow as modern life gets busier: ‘You can be at the office with lots to do but still call in on friends for half an hour via the internet.’ He says that women who make and maintain online friendships are following what the genders do naturally, as women traditionally excel at communication. And he emphasises that we shouldn’t see spending lots of time online as deviant behaviour. ‘Spending four to five hours chatting online is no different than an evening in front of the TV. If you feel better afterwards, there’s nothing wrong with that.’ Problems only occur when you only socialise online. ‘It’s a cliché, but everything in moderation,’ says Dr Griffiths. Helen Tunney says that internet socialising ‘can sometimes take over your life’ and that it’s good to have a break occasionally. Keris Stainton admits, ‘Even on holiday, I had to go online because I was frightened of missing anything.’ She’s now instituted computer-free weekends and finds she gets a lot more done.
She also has lots to blog about on her return.