From its ability to spread false information to its deleterious effect on our personal lives, the Internet has gotten a bad rap lately.
“The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you,” wrote the New York Times’ Ross Douthat in a recent column urging us to disconnect, particularly from our smartphones. “But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction. Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not.”
Last Friday, I flew to Nashville in search of some of those new graces. I was going to meet two women who have become some of my closest friends, despite the fact that we’d never before laid eyes on each other. I met BabylonSista and AuntB, whom I’m referring to by their Twitter handles, in 2010 and 2011 respectively; I reached out to each of them after they vehemently disagreed with something I’d written, kicking off conversations that have continued over email, direct messages and instant messaging for more than half a decade. (Regular readers of Act Four may also know AuntB as Betsy Phillips, an occasional contributor to this blog.)
As we discussed this weekend, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that we would have gotten to know each other in the absence of the Internet. We live in three different states and work in three different industries. There is some small overlap between cultural criticism and AuntB’s work, though it still would have taken an extraordinary coincidence for us to be in touch, much less to end up doing anything more than conducting a simple transaction. The relationship our friendship most resembles is one involving the years of letters I exchanged as a child and teenager with a British boy a few years older than I am. In that case, our grandmothers knew each other and set us up as correspondents. With BabylonSista and AuntB, Twitter’s tagging function and an automated Google search put us in touch with each other.
And I don’t think I’m overstepping when I say that our lives are richer for having known one another. We’ve talked each other through weddings, job changes, family emergencies and the new challenges of parenthood. I’ve benefited tremendously from BabylonSista and AuntB’s experiences and perspectives. Whether readers of this column know it or not, you’ve gained from their wisdom, too: Both women often read early drafts of my work, helping me avoid pitfalls and sharpen my language and my ideas.
I’ll admit that I was nervous on Friday as I walked to the coffee shop where the three of us were scheduled to gather. Like a lot of writers, I’m sometimes more fluid in print than I am when I speak out loud. Through our conversations, BabylonSista and AuntB have gotten to know a version of me that’s far less varnished than the one I present on Twitter or in my columns. What if they didn’t like me? What if our discussions didn’t flow as easily in person as they did through our keyboards? This wasn’t the first time I’d taken a friendship from the Internet to the real world: I met my best friend and the matron of honor at my wedding through a similar online argument. But the stakes were a little higher here: a full weekend in the company of people who were by one measure intimates, and by a more traditional definition strangers.
Fortunately, my apprehensions were mistaken. Our visit took us not merely closer into our friendship, but thanks to AuntB’s deep knowledge of Nashville, into some of the city’s more charming and intriguing crannies and hillsides. The only time we stopped talking was when we were eating our way through the city’s absolute embarrassment of culinary riches.
If we’d confined our relationship to the Internet byways where it began, we might have rested secure in what we had. But we would have missed an opportunity to use the Internet like a kind of wormhole, delivering each of us to places, experiences and relationships we might never have had otherwise.
Whether we’re sharing things that look like news stories that allow us to nestle into the cocoon of our own preconceived belief, or curating our lives for the approval of absolute strangers, the Internet can allow us to escape into an alternate reality that’s comforting, but ultimately hollow and arid. In these circumstances, the Internet is an illusionist’s trick. As I was reminded this weekend, though, when we use this miraculous, fickle tool as inspiration to explore and enrich the world we actually live in, tools like social media can genuinely transform our reality, rather than letting us delay a reckoning with it.