Real Imaginary Friends: Life and Death in Cyberspace

I sat back in my chair, stunned. Ruth passed away from cancer. It was a simple statement at the bottom of a comment section of her last post. Ruth and I had been writing buddies for NaNoWriMo in 2012. We exchanged comments on her blog or mine for the last few years and I kept up on her entries dealing with cancer treatment. I feel terribly sad that her voice, which was so distinctive, sometimes sharp, sometimes funny, will no longer be heard. I never met her, but she was my friend.

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Last month, I met another blogger friend for coffee. I had to laugh when she said “You’re much nicer than you seem on your blog.” Distance. The distance between who we write ourselves as and who we are. If we do it right, that little first skip from cyberspace to reality is a short one. We’re able to shake off preconceptions and get on with the business of getting to know one another. If we obfuscate and seek to deceive, it becomes a terrible blind date where we take a circuitous route home to avoid being followed.

I’ve been fortunate in my cyberlife. I’ve met friends who love to read and write as much as I do, who encourage me when I’m really slogging through things. When I moved to Minneapolis years ago, leaving behind a stale job and relationship, I placed an ad with Yahoo online personals (a precursor to the current menagerie of dating websites), because I was too old for bar scenes and too introverted for networking events. I exchanged messages with a man who responded to the ad. After I scouted his address, ran his plates and notified all of my friends about who I was with and where we were going, we went on a date. Eventually, I married him. That’s how introverts do it, yo.

When I read comments on various forums, I am often amazed at how willingly people reveal themselves to be racist, misogynist, homicidal shitheads. They think that cyberspace is actual space between what they say and who they are, some sort of magical buffer zone. Whoever they are online, it’s never diametrically opposed to who they actually are offline. They just take pains to hide it better.

Alarms have only gone off a few times in my online dealings. I tried to buy some old computer hardware from Craigslist. The equipment was good, but the seller was creepy, even in a public space. I decided to go nowhere near the trunk of his car, lest I become an unwilling passenger. And I tried to remember exactly where his kidneys were located, should I need to incapacitate him in a pinch. Instead, I had to get his phone calls blocked, which was likely a bigger hassle than a kidney punch.

I’ve never viewed the internet as a place where I lived some other life. My online persona is merely an extension of me, one that at times is more nuanced or strident or intellectual or silly than what everyday life allows. The gap between online and offline is a puddle jump. People who know me are rarely surprised by what I write here and thus far, the people who meet me after connecting online rarely run away screaming.

When I talk to people who don’t use the internet socially, it feels like I’m talking about imaginary friends. They “uh-huh” and nod and feel slightly superior for their numerous fleshy friends. I could hardly explain why I would cry about a lady I’ve never met or why I feel a void where her voice once was. It would seem to them like crying over the demise of a fictional character.

But she was real, so let me tell you about my friend, Ruth. Better yet, I’ll let her speak for herself, through her comments:

I don’t believe happiness can be ‘caught’ but is often ‘stumbled upon’ unexpectedly. I think we have to be open to those moments when they catch us unawares. Happiness to me is having nothing to do except write, or go on a ‘photo safari’ with my partner. Even then, I’m not sure if that is happiness or contentment. I am perfectly happy to be content most of the time with some giddy moments of happiness thrown in to mix it up a little.

******

Success and failure are constructs we make. If you think you’ll succeed or you think you’ll fail, you’re right. Failure isn’t in my vocabulary any more. But that depends on how you define failure – if it means not living up to someone else’s definition of success then it isn’t a failure. And if you do fall short of your own expectations, but keep trying, then that isn’t a failure, either. And I never, ever, think of myself (or anyone else) as average – there’s no such thing. We are each unique with our own set of talents and quirks, and that’s what makes us special, not average.

******

I don’t know about ‘fitting in’, but I’ve always marched to my own drummer, even in high school in the early 60s when I was taking science classes and most of the other girls were taking language and arts. I’m sure there are some demographics I fit into, but the more you drill down from the broad categories of age, gender, occupation, the more people become unique to themselves.

******

And that’s what love is – a journey together into the unknown.

******

I think there comes a point in our lives when we realize our mortality. That’s the point when we ask ourselves if this is all there is. We either get depressed and accept that life is over for us, or we get off our butts and realize we still have a lot of living to do. I read somewhere that happiness is the journey, not the destination, and that we are so often too busy pursuing what we think is happiness to realize it’s right here with us.

I have learned that nothing is certain in this life and I have also learned that it’s up to me what I do with my time here. I choose to live as long as I am physically able, and to enjoy whatever time I have left. None of us know how long we have; we don’t know our expiration date.

******

Ruth Rainwater was here. And she was my friend.

48 Comments on “Real Imaginary Friends: Life and Death in Cyberspace

  1. Hi, Michelle, Ruth sounds like a lovely, thoughtful, and straightforward person. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. How lucky to have known her, though! … thanks for sharing her with us. This is a beautiful tribute, and I really resonated with your comments about cyberlife and being your authentic self wherever you are (says one introvert to another). I enjoy your blog very much. Thanks!
    Donna

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Donna. She seemed that way to me, too. It’s an odd experience, to feel the loss of someone I’ve never met. Nothing is the same or equal to offline experiences, but it does seem to be another layer in the world of human relationships. And I find that the more authentic I am, the more likely it is that I make authentic connections on or off line.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for introducing us to Ruth. What blogging has taught me is that it is possible to have a more intimate, closer relationship with someone you will never meet than with someone who you can see anytime you want.

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    • As a writer and reader, I think words sometimes take on more nuance and meaning than some face-to-face interactions. That’s what often surprises me about what people write online – to treat it as separate from the kind of person they are seems odd.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Friendships and relationships come in many forms and I believe many of our relationships created through technological means are just as real as our “in-person” connections …. I am sorry. I can see why you miss her voice.

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    • I think it’s easy to dismiss online interactions as some sort of fictional existence. It’s hard to explain it to people who don’t engage that way, but then I think of the history of relationships sustained through written correspondence (John and Abigail Adams come to mind). It’s different kind of relationship, but can be just as significant and relevant to one’s life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, Michelle – I’m sorry. I read many of Ruth’s comments on your blog – not this one, I think, but she commented quite often when you were switching to veganism. I was struck by her calm wisdom, and I’m so sorry you’ve lost a special friend.

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    • She was someone who always seemed thoughtful and consistent in her commentary. For all that we rail about the trolls and wingnuts on the internet, there are people who remind us that there is plenty of wisdom and compassion as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dee. I feel an ephemeral sadness, so I keep things in perspective. It just felt wrong to not acknowledge that this person I’d communicated with over the last few years was no longer here.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m so sorry for your loss, Michelle. You and Ruth shared a lot together. This is a beautiful tribute to her. I hope she was able to live as fully as possible. She sounds like she was a wonderful and genuine person.

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    • Thanks, Amy. It was my intent to contextualize what some of these online interactions mean, but it did end up being a tribute.

      I know that you are going through your own, very different kind of grief, which is simply not comparable to the fleeting sadness here. It’s kind of you to take the time to comment. I hope that you and your family are doing well. Grieving is such an uneven process, but I hope that your days are seeing more light than not.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, Michelle. Thanks for sharing Ruth with us. I have the feeling I’d have gotten on well with her. Peace, John

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  7. From one fleshy friend to another, condolences on the loss of what sounds like a truly memorable person. I loved her take on love which makes an excellent motto for friendship as well: A journey together into the unknown.

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    • I was thinking about what a patchwork quilt relationships are – from online to offline, phone or Skype only, written, work acquaintances to long lost school chums – constantly shifting and changing, depending upon where one is in life.

      Your comment set me off on a tangent…as usual.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. In my beliefs, Ruth is still wholly aware of you, and thus aware of your tribute. I don’t know what part that plays in her current state of happiness, but I choose to believe that even in the afterlife, our positive actions can have a positive impact.

    Regarding our online versus fleshly personas, I find that while I lay myself bare online, I do not do the same in person–depending upon the audience. While I try to place my thoughts before my tongue online, I sometimes do not in non-virtual mode–to my regret. While I seek the more creative or humorous mode of expression online, offline, I more often rant, spew, or drone in full-on self-absorbed Aspie mode.

    Thus, in my case at least, there is quite a sizable difference between my virtual and non-virtual selves. From the dating sites, I met others who come across as far different–less colorful–than their online selves. These are also writers, and, specifically, talented comedic writers.

    Are vee not funny?

    Apparently, in person, some of vee are not.

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    • It’s like anything else, one’s persona adjusts slightly with each scenario and relationship. I find that as I get older and more comfortable with myself, those adjustments are becoming barely discernible. I tend to be a little more brusque online and likely more interesting, but unfortunately, my sense of humor improves in neither venue.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. That is just beautiful what you shared about your friend Ruth. I have some friends that I met online and they are great sounding boards and have been supportive when I have needed it.

    I completely agree the internet makes people lose their filters they use in the flesh and you realize what a complete jerk they really are. However as you have said some people are nicer in person and I think it that they do not realize how they come across in the written word.

    Thanks for your blogs! They are great and since I’m still a newbie it helps to have a few blogs to refer to.

    🙂

    Kelly

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Kelly. I think there are people who relish having different personae, but I would find that difficult to juggle. And as we’ve discovered through many, many news stories, online life is not a private show and can haunt those who don’t think through what they’re revealing about themselves.
      And of course, the other benefit of being as authentic online as offline is that you do make worthwhile connections. I hope that your blogging journey is an enjoyable one!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m sorry you lost a friend.
    But you have written quite the bon mot yourself right here: “They think that cyberspace is actual space between what they say and who they are.”

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    • Thanks, Ross. I suppose the same thing applies to offline life. People can be duplicitous anywhere they decide to be. But I’ve found that eventually a person’s true nature shows through, on or off line, if you interact with them enough.

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  11. Yes, we can have online friends. We’re real, just happen to meet in cyberspace. I’ve lost two such friends since I started blogging. I cried, and I still miss both of them. Thank you for your nice tribute to Ruth.

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    • Thanks, Helen. I know I’ve read other people’s stories about loss on the internet. Oftentimes, they never knew what happened to their friends. This was a reminder to me to type up instructions for my family to deal with my digital presence, should something happen.
      It’s morbid, but knowing the connections that I’ve made over the years, I wouldn’t want to disappear without explanation.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. As everyone else said, this is a lovely tribute both to Ruth and to the value of our virtual friendships. I only just started up on FaceBook, and that’s the only place I’ve actually seen comments that were purposefully offensive and insulting. Even though I’ve been hearing about these shitheads for years, I was still shocked. I could imagine debate teachers all over the country performing simultaneous face-palms. “This is not how one conducts oneself in a public argument.”

    One of the many, many benefits of meeting my blog friends in real time is to delight in the puddles. Some glitter bright and strong from the computer screen, but in the flesh they merge into a vast ocean of depth and beauty. It’s a joyous experience for me, and leaves me with a renewed faith in the human race. Thanks for that, Michelle.

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    • Thanks, Sandy. I’m sorry that you are beginning to discover the banality and crudeness of Facebook. I have generally found that it generates a great deal of the garbage that shows up on the internet, from cliched memes to hateful rants against anything you could imagine. My brief interludes with it have been wasteful and unpleasant and it just fed my misanthropy. It doesn’t need that much fertilizer!

      As for the puddle jump, it was such a pleasure to meet you and I did not feel compelled to take a circuitous route home. I look forward to coffee again!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. There’s nothing imaginary about deep only-in-cyberspace connections between people. I would even go so far as to say that there are occasional *fictional* characters whose presence so affects us that if we are somehow cut off from them we feel genuine loss and sorrow; the real beings whom we might never meet in the physical world are that much more significant. And in some ways, because we all do choose whether or not to edit ourselves into slight variations on our true and distinctive personae, I think those of us who seek our own true character through our blogs and correspondence are compelled to find, and attempt to become, our *better* selves here. All the more reason we bond as deeply as we do when we’re privileged to discover kindred spirits whom we both admire and believe.

    So I’m very sorry for the loss of your wise and wonderful friend Ruth, and hope you’ll find comfort in knowing that you are a great friend to many others of us ‘out here’ who wish you only the best, especially in hard times like this.

    Kathryn

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    • Thanks, Kathryn. I like what you said about fictional characters as well – there are some that simply become part of one’s psyche. For a long time, I thought I was writing a sanitized version of myself, but I’ve become less and less willing to do that. People are messy and complicated and inconsistent. It’s easier to be thoughtful in writing, so perhaps the edges are a little more smooth.

      I’m so glad you’re “out there”!

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  14. I’m so sorry about your losing Ruth. I’ve been surprised by how much my online blogging friends have come to mean to me, a truth that is reinforced each time one of them suddenly stops blogging. I’ve told my husband, if something happens to me, he has to go on my blog and let my folks know, as did someone for you and Ruth.

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    • Thanks, Ellen. I was surprised, too, when I felt the impact of her death. It’s a reminder to not be dismissive of online interactions and to appreciate the unique experience that it is.
      I had just read an article about dealing with “digital life after death”, so I wrote up instructions for dealing with my blog. Step-by-step for the non-WordPress user, since my husband doesn’t blog.

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  15. I saved this to read and well, Ruth’s words really resonate with me now, today. Thank you for making her real for me. And I am sorry for your loss Michelle. – Bill

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  16. I can’t say I was friends with Ruth, but she was a familiar presence on this surreal community that is blogging. I’m so sorry to hear she passed on.

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    • I think that technology is like anything else, it can be used to accomplish wonderful things, like connecting people or awful things. For me, it’s been a fortunate experience, “meeting” all kinds of wonderful and creative people.

      Like

  17. Wow I love this!

    Recently starting blogging and can totally relate to the cyber self vs. real life self. It’s an extension of me only “strangers” know.

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    • Hi Tess,
      I’m sorry that I missed this comment before and apologize for the delayed response. I’m still learning to navigate cyber vs. real self, even after 3 years of blogging. I hope that you find it an enjoyable experience!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I came across this today and am mesmerized by what online contacts can create. I’m a beginner blogger who’s shunned the whole social media scene until a few weeks ago, so I still have to develop a…. feel for what these relationships are all about, as well as, obviously, finding where I think I can allow myself to go with this. I’ll need your patience…

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    • Blogging is really the only form of social media I have any tolerance for – the longer form writing and the community it fosters suits my temperament. In terms of relationships, I think it depends on the type of blogger. I write mostly personal essays, so the comments tend to be on that level, but my online friendships do tend to stay in context. I’m very fond of boundaries and taking my time on things.

      I wish you luck as you explore blogging and figure out what works for you!

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