Internet Friends, Real People

Near the end of a self-help book, the author wrote that social connections we make with others online aren’t “real.”

The next sentence said that online communities are “pretend communities.” The author explained that they don’t “come close to fulfilling the legitimate needs we have.”

I understand the point he was making, but don’t entirely agree.

It’s true that folks I know online won’t notice if I left the garage door open, or lend me a few dollars until next payday. In nearly all cases, they can’t. They live too far away. Some aren’t even on the same continent.

It’s also true that the communities don’t “come close to fulfilling the legitimate needs” a person has. But I do not think that makes the interpersonal association we have “pretend.” Limited, yes. “Pretend,” no.

“Legitimate Needs”

So why did I bother joining these “pretend communities,” and visit several daily? Like most folks, I need personal connection. Online communities help meet that need.

My online friends and acquaintances are no substitute for my family. Expecting that would be unreasonable, and another topic.

Let’s back up a little. Do “legitimate needs” for social contact even exist? Since I’m human, yes. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 18781885)

Some critters are more “social” than primates, but not many. Chimps, for example, typically live and work in groups of 15 to 150. Humans have been living in communities about that big for a very long time.

We’re learning how to get along in larger groups. Upwards of 1,300,000,000 folks live in each of the two largest nations.

The recently-formed European Union is much smaller. But folks in the E.U. haven’t started killing each other in wholesale lots yet, so I’m hopeful about that outfit. It’s a good start, and yet another topic. (January 22, 2017; October 30, 2016; September 25, 2016)

The point is that I’m a human, humans are social, so I have “legitimate needs” for social contact.

Folks have known that for a very long time. Strictly scientific studies of human social behavior are a fairly recent development, and that’s yet again another topic.1

Being Human

Nomader, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Humanity’s social nature can be good news or bad news, depending on our decisions. Each of us lives in a society, so thinking only of myself isn’t an option. (Catechism, 1931)

It is an option, actually, but not a good one. (March 5, 2017; November 13, 2016)

On the other hand, each of us is a unique individual, not a cog in a social machine. I’m obliged to help societies I’m in, and may expect help from those societies. Within reason. (Catechism, 1881, 19281942, 22122213; “Gaudium et Spes,” 25)

Families are natural societies, the “original cell of social life.” It’s where each of us learns how to be human. It’s where we should learn to care for others, particularly those who can’t care for themselves. (Catechism, 22072213)

That’s how it’s supposed to be. Sometimes families fall short of that ideal, and can’t give their members needed support. That’s where larger societies come in. (Catechism, 22092211)

All societies are alike in some ways, but each is unique.

“A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them….”
“…Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules…”
(Catechism, 18801881)

All humans, myself included, are people. I’ve talked about that, a lot. (November 21, 2016; September 23, 2016; September 11, 2016)

I’m quite sure I don’t stop being human when I log into a social media site: or use a telephone, for that matter. Neither do you.

Passing a Turing Test

On the other hand, I’ve had some useful conversations with chatbots. They’ve gotten a lot smarter in recent years. Better at imitating a human, at any rate, which gets me to the Turing test.

Maybe it should be Turing tests. There’s more than one version. Different folks say they measure different things, and that’s still another topic.

Or maybe not so much.

Some folks think of Turing tests as determining whether or not a computer can successfully fool a human into thinking it’s human on a text-only channel.

Others think of them as testing whether a computer successfully imitates a human on that communication channel.

I’d probably pass a Turing test, in the sense that the other person would eventually decide that I’m definitely a human, not a chatbot.

I say “probably,” because several years back someone asked me if I was a bot. We’d been exchanging short text messages, and the other person noticed that I was responding very quickly, in full sentences.

I’m not up to secretarial standards, but a business school’s typing course and a lifetime spent at keyboards probably made me faster than most folks that individual knew.

Oddly enough, I may be better at ‘imitating’ human social behavior online than I am face-to-face.

Anything-But-Early Diagnosis

When I was an infant, my parents unscrewed light bulbs while I was sleeping instead of using the switch. Switches “clicked” back then, and the sound would wake me up, screaming.

I didn’t start talking until well after the usual age. When I did, I started with full sentences.

One of my elementary school teachers told me, years later, that it took me a long time to respond in class.

I’d obviously heard the question, and was “paying attention,” but paused before answering. Happily, that gave the impression that I was thinking about the question: a lot. I probably was. I don’t remember being aware of the delay.

It’s possible that I was also thinking about how I should respond to the question. That involves evaluating the other person’s facial expression, body language, tone of voice, actions over the previous several minutes, and expectations specific to that setting.

Most folks, I understand, do that automatically. So do I, to an extent. But even after decades of practice, I still must ‘pay attention.’

These days, kids who act like me can get identified as having something like Asperger syndrome or autism spectrum disorder.2 But it may be just as well that my unusual wiring wasn’t spotted in childhood.

Back then, my civilization had gotten past terms like “soulless mass of flesh possessed by the devil,” and was working its way through somewhat more helpful labels like “autistic psychopaths” and “early infantile autism.”

Something awful happened when I was 12. I know about it, but don’t remember the incident. It’s probably why posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD, shows up in my diagnoses. There’s more to say, but that’ll wait until another day.

I’ve been dealing with depression ever since. It took a long time for me to realize that something was wrong, since I grew a foot and started shaving daily around that time.

I assumed that feeling as if light and color had drained from the world was normal after childhood. Some adults I’d observed seemed to confirm the assumption. Decades later, at my wife’s earnest recommendation, I started working with a psychiatrist.

Living With Quirks

Happily, we know quite a bit about major depressive disorder, clinical depression, these days.

It probably helps that folks have known about it at least since Hippocrates said natural phenomena cause disease: not divine pique.

Two dozen centuries later, “melancholia” is called depression, and we have learned a bit about the neurochemistry involved.3 That’s good news for folks like me, since now powerful antidepressants let me think without fighting the machinery. (October 14, 2016)

About meds and faith, my life and health are “precious gifts” from God. Taking of them, within reason, is part of my job. (Catechism, 2288, 2278)

Antidepressants have made dealing with what’s currently called an autism spectrum disorder easier. But it hasn’t given me the apparently-effortless social skills most folks enjoy.

That’s okay. Glitchy neurochemistry is part of the kit God gave me. It also includes defective hips, creative talents, and enhanced language skills. It’s given me learning opportunities, and helps keep my life — interesting. (October 7, 2016; July 31, 2016)

I think autism spectrum disorder is a useful label, but that it does not fully define a person. I’ll admit a bias, since I’m one of ‘those people.’ Seeing the condition from the inside helps me understand the frustration suffered by folks with similar quirks.

It also gave me a personal interest in public reaction to an ‘autism’ connection in mass murder at Virginia Tech, 2007; and Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012.4

A counselor once told me that my affect display, observable expression of emotion, was well off the norm. It was an immediate and obvious signal that I had something like autism spectrum disorder. That explained a lot.

I realized that someone without the right training would notice, too, and simply realize that I wasn’t normal. I think it’s one reason that getting a job had been a consistently-frustrating experience.

It’s also, most likely, why I like online communities. My face-to-face social behavior isn’t so odd that I haven’t been able to enjoy “real” communities. Doing so, however, requires a level of concentration and effort that most folks apparently don’t experience.

Connecting with other folks over a text-only channel is much less work. That lets me relax, and enjoy the company.

More posts, vaguely-related and otherwise:

1 Being social:

2 “Autism spectrum disorder,” ASD, is a catch-all term for a range of things that can go wrong with the brain and central nervous system. I think it’s a useful label, and that it’ll be replaced as we learn more:

3 Depression:

4 Fairly calm looks at autism, crime, and programmers:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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8 Responses to Internet Friends, Real People

  1. Anni H. says:

    I have recently been spending time thinking about how I am cultivating friendships online, more so than in real life. And, been analyzing the friendships in that manner, since they are vastly different in construct than real life friendships. I, too, would argue they are different, but no less valuable friendships.

    While no mental health disorder is present for me, I am an extreme introvert, and I find a comfortable length of arms’ length I am able to keep people, if they are online, rather than in person. I know I have been deeply wounded by friendships in real life – and, at this stage of my life, I am more comfortable with the relative anonymity (or the relationships I can cultivate on my terms) that the internet can provide.

    You have some great thoughts here – thank you for sharing!

    • My pleasure, and thank you for taking time to write a thoughtful comment.

      I strongly suspect that an important factor in whether friendships are “real” or not is the motive or motives involved in forming them. And that’s – – – what else? Another topic.

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Between my stutter, social anxiety, and Asperger’s, online in almost the only place I’m comfortable interacting with people. In fact, I prefer email and private messages to instant chat because there’s a delay that allows me to think about what I’m typing. And no one gets impatient if my typing speed is a little slow.

  3. I appreciate you sharing about your self examination and how you relate to communities. I think it does us all a great service if we rewind ourselves and see why it is we do what we do now in adult life. I can relate! Plus not all family members gives us those ears we need, but many times our online communities do. I think it’s all a healthy balance! Great post!!

Thanks for taking time to comment!