A lot of my best friendships started online. Some of them stayed online, some of them died there, and many became IRL bonds. After 15 years of using the internet on a daily basis, I’ve floated through most of the ways you can find your virtual tribe: AOL chat rooms, forums for my favorite bands, MySpace, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Tumblr. I met one of my best friends on a message board for fans of Mike Doughty in 1999. Her posts there stood out from the usual fangirling—they were thick with sarcasm and cut with a dark streak of humor, she talked about interests outside of Soul Coughing, like knitting, which we had both just discovered. We both lived in New York City, so we decided to meet at a Doughty concert, and we’ve been besties ever since (two years ago, I officiated her wedding). I started out as a fan of my friend Sarah’s blog back in 2001, attended her reading series a few years later, and have since become so close with her that we vacation together and have already planned our leisurely activities for when we’re old ladies together (mostly building miniatures). My husband and I met on a Delphi comic book forum for Matt Fraction in 1999. I was brought to that forum by Kelly Sue, a woman I’d met on the Mike Doughty message board; she said it was cool place to talk to other nerds. Seth and I were friends for six years online before we met in person in the summer of 2005, when I was in New York visiting family. We went to a Marcel Dzama show, picked up some finger puppets from a vendor on 14th Street, and spent the entire day rolling around the city laughing so much that I knew right away that I would never meet anyone else I wanted to be with every single day. We spent another few months apart (I lived in Alaska at the time), emailing daily and nerding out on the Matt Fraction board, so by the time we finally got together I already knew and loved him. The internet has brought all of the greatest people in my life right to my door.
It has also contributed to some of the most toxic relationships I’ve ever had, and revealed the ugliest sides of my personality. Because as easy as it was to bond with people online over things like shared interests and the ability to quote Kids in the Hall skits at a moment’s notice, it was equally easy to find people eager to share less positive stuff: complaints, bitching, and gossip. For a while I rolled with a pretty negative crew. We met on the same forums, websites, and blogs where I met my lifelong pals and partner, but these conversations somehow always focused on complaining about someone or something. Most of these venues (rightly) frowned upon openly calling someone out or trolling them, so in the light of day we were on our best behavior. But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t immediately take to email or other backchannels to vent about our REAL feelings.
It started, as I recall, when a few bloggers started intentionally making money from their websites instead of focusing on putting out the same content we were used to. These people we liked had CHANGED in the WORST WAY—selling out!—and we found both this shift and these bloggers’ consequent success intolerable. Once that door was open, we quickly devolved into taking personal shots at bloggers who were more successful than us. We all had our own blogs, and we were just as creative, if not more so, we reasoned, than these people—why did THEY make money while we still had to work our stupid office jobs? We didn’t take into account that those bloggers worked harder than we did, and were smarter about business—our reaction was jealousy, pure and simple, dressed up to look like principled objection.
If this all sounds super middle-school to you, it felt that way to me too, even while it was happening. It reminded me of the often abusive friendships kids sometimes form as a way to survive that incredibly awkward social time. A popular girl in my grade used to pick on people and make other girls do strangely horrible things to prove that they were worthy of hanging out with her—like stealing milk from people’s trays at lunch or trying to make someone cry by insulting their outfit. She would stand back like Maleficent, the spiteful witch in Sleeping Beauty, while other people scurried around trying to impress her, simply because she had been deemed cool by some arbitrary set of social standards (designer clothes + a house with a pool). Since I never made it to her inner circle, I always wondered what it was like being her friend. Once you’d done some horrible thing to prove yourself worthy of her friendship, THEN what? Was she really nice? Or did the torture just keep going, like some prolonged middle school hazing? Did you ever get to put the brakes on being awful?
Sixteen years later, I learned that being in the inner circle of a group of mean girls usually means you have to prove your solidarity every day, and that means you have to keep being mean. There were five or six of us at any given time in this loose group of bloggers. We were all in our mid-to-late-20s, and at the same point in a similar imagined life trajectory, working unfulfilling office jobs for not much money, caught up in bad relationships, uncertain about our futures. I wanted to write for a living and to feel like my life was moving forward, but I felt stuck in a shitty job, living paycheck to paycheck with roommates I didn’t get along with in a state (Alaska) that was physically and socially isolating. There was such an unfathomably long distance between where we were and where we all wanted to be that it seemed like we’d never get there, and no one was giving us directions. There was no map. And so it felt better and more immediate to rag on someone who had some element of the life I wanted, than to contemplate taking the daunting first steps toward getting that thing for myself. It felt (temporarily) good to complain about the unfairness of our struggle—calling it unfair made us feel like righteous victims, like criminally ignored geniuses, and there is nobility in that. Whereas admitting the truth to ourselves—“This is pretty much what most people experience in their 20s”—would cast us as normal, unspecial people who might never realize our goals, and no one else would care one way or the other.
If you want it to be, the internet is a safe space for you to be a complete jerk. When one of the parenting bloggers we ragged on made it into the pages of a major magazine, we sneered at her canned answers (“This is the same thing she always says!”) and even stooped so low as to mock her clothes. Whenever anyone got a book deal from their blog, we made ourselves feel better by guessing how poorly it would sell, or saying that it would just be a rehash of stuff you could already get for free (irony: my life is FULL OF IT). We found out a certain blogger had registered her blog name as an LLC and a brand, and for days we talked about our plans to brand our sandwiches, our coats, our pets. We were incredibly, overwhelmingly, obviously jealous. I never left mean comments on these websites nor otherwise made my hatred known to its objects, but I did a lot of hate-reading of blogs and furious emailing to this group about every nitpicky detail I could find to criticize, like misspelled words or lazy reposts of old material. If I couldn’t be successful, I could at least hate everyone who was. It made me feel better to think that no matter how much the writers I scorned were adored by the public, there would always be at least ONE person out there who wasn’t buying it. I would have been ASHAMED to say any of this stuff IRL. But the internet gave my resentment and meanness a place to come out and play. Without the internet, I doubt I would have ever even discovered how truly awful I am capable of being.