Are our internet relationships really real?

I wonder what he smells like after he shaves, whether or not his aftershave is musky or more soapy. Does he lightly touch my arm when I make him laugh? What sort of underwear does he wear? How do his arms feel around my shoulders as we both toss our heads back laughing in the sun?

It is possible that I’ve been taking the fact that an online quiz says George Clooney is my “celebrity boyfriend” a little too seriously.

I figured, in real life I’m alone, so I might as well have a little Internet-based fun. But, you know, the more I think about it: Am I really all that alone?

Here in the United States, 82 percent of all young adults use the Internet at home like I do. This represents, depending on the specific age you want to cut off “young” at, between 100 and 150 million people in America just in my age group.

We have entire online communities united not by geography but instead by particular interest (yo, geeks!), health status (hi, fellow HIV-positive folks!), sexuality (hey, asexuals, queers and everything in between!) and political persuasion (um—hello, Tea Party). Prior to the Internet, a lot of us were odd ducks in our respective physical villages. Now, we’re just part of our own personal—and global—tribes.

Still, these online connections somehow feel different.

Sure, I correspond with readers I’ve never met. I’ve helped some folks cope with the anxiety of HIV testing—and helped a few others deal with a new HIV-positive diagnosis. I regularly chat on Facebook with friends I’ve actually never met but with whom I share a great deal of personal and professional feelings. And even before modern social media, there was Internet Relay Chat. IRC helped me realize through conversations with my peers that I was gay and let me build connections with other gay guys throughout adolescence. None of us lived near each other; we associated exclusively online. I even had an Internet boyfriend living in Toledo, Ohio.

Naturally, because everyone knows virtual relationships can’t be as good as physical ones, we had to meet. So my Internet boyfriend and I eventually met—and quickly parted. In person, we just didn’t click. Which, at the time, back in 2000, seemed terribly confounding. After all, if online connections aren’t followed through in “reality,” they don’t matter.

Or do they?

“Every connection matters,” 
says Matthew Ray. Co-founder and creative director of Philly-based Chatterblast Media, Ray’s professional experience with the Internet runs the gamut from social media strategies for small business to helping the Philadelphia Parking Authority maintain civility and professionalism on Twitter. “For some people,” he says, online connections are primarily about “finding a friend, lover or sympathetic ear. For other people, it’s all about marketing. They just don’t know they are marketing themselves.”

This makes a lot of sense. After all, we so-called Millennials have spent years building our online collective consciousness—our own neurotic version of Skynet, memes and all. Individually, we’ve spent literally decades figuring out how to foster true connections with other people globally on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, GrindR and Scruff. In fact, this month the Internet celebrates 25 years as it exists today. Yes, Millenials, we’re pretty much the same age as the Internet.

By fostering these online relationships in such public, and sometimes awkwardly intimate, ways, we’ve alarmed older generations. In 2012, Stephen Marche wrote his thorough social question commentary for The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” “The very magic of the new machines, the efficiency and elegance with which they serve us,” he argued, “obscures what isn’t being served: everything that matters.” Marche’s thesis was that online interaction misses the essential quality of “real” human relationships: “A connection is not the same thing as a bond… Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are.”

As far as those people who actually understand the Internet are concerned, this is not true.

Entire platforms are now built around self-reflection. Even in the web’s adolescence, we had Livejournal and Geocities, GIFs and all, on which to start not only reflecting inward but projecting outward our feelings and struggles, our triumphs and our proudest moments.

Some of us use the web for Jedi-like altruism: To advance knowledge with others in our areas of study or to support causes in which we believe. To misunderstand these connections as shallow or illusory is to completely discount the fact that great change has come into play precisely because of these supposedly “unbound” connections. For instance, after a tsunami killed nearly a quarter of a million fellow human beings, millions of folks worldwide connected in the most human way possible: to help one another with donations, volunteerism, and, above all else, communication. The same thing happened after Sept. 11, 2001.

Granted, others use the web for more nefarious reasons. “We all have false prophets, zealots, town criers, instigators, pot stirrers and fabricators in our social media networks,” Ray points out. “Social media channels give you access to more information, but no guarantee it’s the right or accurate information.” Indeed, Matthew Ray’s own bio on some social media platforms claims he was raised by raccoons.

Still, despite the static of the Internet’s background noise and absurdist humbug, I’d argue the digital world is inherently safer than reality. After all, online, people can only stab you in the back metaphorically. Nobody yet has been literally murdered through an open browser window. And yet, the same sorts of sociopathic bullies who drive peers to suicide by emotionally tormenting them in person find, tragically, that the Internet is just as powerful.

It’s true that the language we use with friends online and the language we use in person are very different dialects. As Ray notes, you can jam dozens of emoticons into a tweet, but that doesn’t necessarily say the same thing a verbal conversation would. But these dialects are both still language, and thus both serve to foster communication and, by definition, real connections.

Here’s why that matters: Being a loner is nothing new. Throughout human history, there’ve been those who haven’t participated in society. So whether or not young people’s reliance on the Internet these days to foster connections causes an existential crisis in a few of us is sort of irrelevant, really, due to the fact that precisely because of the nature of these virtual connections, millions of people now have the ability to, and in fact do, take part in humanity who didn’t much before.

I think we really need to stop questioning whether or not these connections are real and, instead, start realizing how we can more effectively integrate our physical needs with our cognitive and emotional desires. Then again, that same site telling me George Clooney should be my boyfriend also told me I’m most like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. So what do I know?

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