What Is A Friend?

When did the internet officially begin?

This often depends on who you ask, but the general consensus is it came into being after the creation of ARPANET, which was established in 1969 by the USA’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) but didn’t become an international network until the late 1970s, when the British Post Office, Telenet and others hopped onboard. By 1981, the system had grown to accommodate most of Europe, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia.

The internet as most of us think of it – the world wide web, and so on – can be traced back to 1989, when a proposal by the computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee outlined his ideas for a ‘web of nodes’ that would feature hypertext documents to store data.

Over 1.5 billion people now access the internet on a regular basis.

Why the history lesson? As the internet has matured into the living, almost breathing entity which we know and love, the way we all use and interact with it, and each other, has changed. It has forced us to re-address previously held convictions and beliefs about the nature of relationships, and how we define them.

My journey began in 1993. I was working as a trainee technical analyst for a firm that produced reports on currencies, bonds and commodities for an international client base. Everything was written and distributed via a really quite crude UNIX network. But through this setup, which was connected 24/7 via a very expensive leased telephone line, I first came into contact with the internet, and specifically USENET.

Now, back then, the internet was the internet and everything else was ‘real life’. There was an obvious and clear distinction between the two. Any interactions you shared with other online folk were limited and typically quite formal.

As web browsers appeared and people began to learn basic HTML, things began to blur. Personal websites started popping up all over the place, and a lot of these began to use guestbooks and other ways of communicating with the host. As browsers became more and more powerful, professional, money-powered websites began to feature forums and other interactive tools. Running alongside this graphical goodness was Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Compuserve, AOL and other systems that offered chat facilities.

Perhaps for the first time in our history, people all over the world began regularly talking to strangers. And they enjoyed it. And as more and more of them signed up, the concept of ‘what is a friend?’ began to blur.

Fast-forward a decade or so to the present, and things have become completely messed up. Far beyond hazy, far beyond a simple blur, our definitions of who and what constitutes a friend is often difficult to pin down. However, what it isn’t – or at least, doesn’t have to be – is somebody you know in the ‘real world’.

For starters, that term is bunk. The internet and everyone who sails within it are, obviously, part of that same real world. For a lot of us, it’s as big a part of our life as anything else. Can you imagine if you woke up tomorrow and the entire internet had been switched off (assuming that was something that could be done; work with me here)? How would you know what was going on in the world? Where would you go to vent? Who would listen to your opinions? And how on earth would you ever keep up with your friends?

Through the development of social networks we’ve been increasingly put under pressure to define who qualifies as a friend in our respective worlds. MySpace was a pretty casual affair, but Facebook complicated things enormously simply by asking us to provide more personal information about ourselves when we signed up. As a result, many of us became more selective, more careful, when accepting friend requests.

This was certainly true for me. Even now, I reserve Facebook purely for people I have actually met, and to some extent know that I can trust. But simply because a large percentage of these same people are school contacts from twenty years ago, I really don’t know them at all.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that I have closer ties and bonds, and far more in common, with many of my online contacts. I’ve actually met few in this group, but because we came together and met on internet venues where we shared similar interests and goals, or became friendly over a compatible sense of humour or attitude, and have fostered this relationship over the years, I would approach a lot more of these folk for advice – certainly in a crisis – than I would many of my ‘real’ friends.

Yet, we could pass each other in the street and not exchange a word. Because we have never met.

There’s a reality to online relationships that doesn’t really exist in the offline world. Stripped away of stumbling blocks like looks, accents, the way we dress and other mostly superficial ideals, we’re left with our personalities, reflected in the way we turn a phrase or use a given word. I don’t think it’s too radical to suggest that I would not be friends with many of my online buddies if we’d not met on the internet, simply because those initial plastic barriers would not have been overcome. We wouldn’t have had the chance to bond; to cement the friendship. (Plus, a couple of them are Scottish, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had a clue what was being said.)

Which brings me (finally) to Twitter. Relationships on Twitter fall somewhere between those on MySpace and Facebook; you don’t have the privacy concerns of the latter, but significantly more interaction than the former. This means that your personality can shine, assuming you let it. Be real, be yourself, and it’s very easy to meet great people on Twitter. These people will become your friends.

Of course, one problem the internet has faced since its dawn is people pretending to be somebody else. This can be a good thing – without the normal limitations, an individual with good things to say can become a powerful influencer and role model – but often it’s an excuse for people to behave like jackasses or to try and manipulate others by assuming the identity of something they are not.

And if you think that’s an issue now, just wait until artificial intelligence catches up. If our idea of what is and what is not a friend is already a little confused, how crazy is it all going to be if and when computerised personalities become indistinguishable from organic ones?

Some believe that while you can develop a relationship online, the real test doesn’t begin until you actually meet. It’s only when you lay eyes upon each other that you can truly call yourselves friends. In twenty, maybe ten years, every other online friend you make might not be a real person at all. You will never be able to ‘meet’ this otherwise sentient being.

What then? If the relationship line is already blurred, it’s going to be an acid trip circa 2025. What if you fell in love with a computer? You might think you’re a fan of Apple now, but just wait until your Macbook comes with a series of special attachments.