My best friends are from the internet, and it's not really that weird. No, that's not true. It's incredibly weird, but that's because we are weird people, not because the process of making friends on the internet is inherently weird. It took me a long time to realize just how unusual it is to make friends online, though.
We live in a world where online dating is becoming increasingly mainstream (Match.com recently funded a study that showed one-in-five relationships now start online) but somehow, finding friends online is still seen as abnormal. And that, to put it eloquently, is really dumb.
When I discovered the world of Harry Potter fandom at the tail-end of middle school, I fell into it with a passion. I was terribly awkward at school; I gained and promptly lost five different friend groups between the fourth grade and my senior year of high school, some in deeply traumatic ways. Have you ever been kicked out of a trick or treating group? Because I have! My little third grade friends were such assholes, man.
The internet, my 13-year-old self discovered, was full of clever people who liked books to the same disturbingly codependent degree that I did. In the magical land of the internet, I didn't have to force uninterested playmates to reenact The Westing Game in my backyard, or indulge my tragic crush on Lyra from The Golden Compass. There were people on the internet posting long and deeply involved theses about the symbolism behind serpent imagery in Chamber of Secrets, and how Ron was totally going to marry Hermione and anyone who thought otherwise was personally victimizing JK Rowling and was probably going to hell.
My high school graduating class had 200 people, and any friendships you could form were almost entirely based on geographic proximity. I had friends from my middle and high school, sure, but when things got rough the online communities I was a part of gave me a real chance to move beyond my cloistered suburban home town. Said the angsty teenager: "I finally found people who got me." I'm glad I had that option.
This discovery was back in the early 2000s, when the internet was still relatively new for mainstream America and online dating was almost as weird as online friend making, so it's understandable some people at the time would be confused by the concept of forming close friendships online. For a very long time, when I spoke about the people I met online, I called them my "friends from camp." I needed a way to explain how I knew these people whenever they came up in a real life conversation, despite not living in the state, or even the same country. And they came up in conversation a lot. Your closest friends have a tendency to do that.
While some girls were trying to climb the high school social ladder via astute application of glitter eyeshadow or playing field hockey, I was feeling incredibly superior chatting with forum friends late into the night and posting thousand word essays viewing house elves through the lens of social justice and anti-oppression work.
Surprisingly, my online social life still had all the trappings of normal adolescence, from girly "sleepover" chatrooms to wild popularity contests. I won't lie to you: I genuinely and deeply wanted to be cool on my Harry Potter message board. There were some Big Name Fans (so popular they basically had their own fan followings) who had been around forever (read: since before Goblet of Fire came out) and had all these amazing inside jokes. They commanded the respect of the entire forum any time they jumped in a thread, and we all desperately wanted to be a part of their in-crowd.
Somewhere along the line, a group of us, mostly middle and high schoolers, created our own clique in the forum. We bonded over inside jokes on the message board, swapped awkward "get to know you" posts where we told each other important things like our favorite type of soup, and, for some reason, competed over who loved Nutella the most. The group ebbed and flowed over time, some people faded away (usually to participate more fully in the real world… those losers), and new people joined in. A decade later, the remains of that group consist of the humble editors over at Tilde.
Much of my high school hormonal ridiculousness happened on message boards. I discovered and, tentatively at first, voraciously soon after, began reading tragic fanfic romances about Harry and Draco "getting past their differences." You know. By having a lot of sex.
It took a very long time to finally meet any of my internet friends in person. It's hard to run out and meet what most may call "strangers" when you're young and either living at home or car-less in a dorm. For years we shared pictures, made phone calls, exchanged addresses and sent each other Christmas cards and vaguely obscene fandom references ironed on to polo shirts.
I had graduated college and started working a real, adult job by the time I finally visited three of my friends who were hiding out on the East coast. That trip resulted in me catching an ungodly flu and three of us nearly getting arrested for stealing milk. It's a great story, and if you look hard enough you can still find the legend in a forgotten police blotter.
It's been nearly a decade since I met my internet friends. I still call them that, by the way. Not because they're not also real life friends at this point, but because it's become a term of endearment. They came from the internet, and they made my life so much better.
Sometimes though, I think the most astounding thing about my internet friendships is just how normal they are. (Or as normal as it's going to get when you regularly force said friends to edit the story you're submitting to an MTV Teen Wolf Fanfiction contest.)
We grew up together. We gossiped late at night about each other's first kisses or prom dates, called each other up the first time we got drunk and sent overly weepy texts on our not-so-first-time drunk. We talk just about every day, even with massive time zone differences, and once almost got arrested together. Put that way, we sound about as normal as possible. In another life, we might have all gone to high school together and just been normal (if a bit nerdy) real life.
Somehow, though, it's still hard to convince people that internet friends can be just as real as people who met through school or work or happenstance. I sometimes defensively think our friendship is even more real. After all, we sought each other out and worked to keep this friendship up in a way you just don't when you see someone every day. But even the nerdiest of my non-internet friends still cocks their head and looks a bit bemused when I let slip that I met my oldest friends on the internet, and that's before I mention it was a Harry Potter forum.
Maybe it's because we live in a world that demands romantic relationships. Single is an uncertain state — something that most people assume a person will want to rectify. Internet dating is acceptable because you need to find a mate and, heck, it's the 21st century. Why not let a computer do that work for you? But friendship? That's something you get by chance. Something we, for some reason, don't consider a necessity.
Which is fucked up.
My internet BFFs are an absolute imperative in my life. The best advice I can give anyone is to go out and find some of your own. After all, who knows when you'll need someone to bail you out of jail for stealing the ingredients to a makeshift White Russian?