Two nights ago, a woman I’ve never met posted a dorky webcam photo of a friend of hers (who I’ve also never met) on Twitter, and I both a) recognized said friend instantly, and b) giggled as though the two of them were among my oldest friends.
That’s because, in a way, they are old friends. I’ve known them for over a decade, through Ye Olde Internette. So long that I can’t even remember how we all first crossed paths. Maybe as frequent commenters on the same blog? Members of an email listserv? Visitors to each other’s blogs? Something like that.
Meanwhile: In the offline part of my life, I’ve been taking my kid for a lot of walks around our new neighbourhood, and getting to know the neighbours. (Want to befriend your neighbours fast? Have a baby. (Hey, I didn’t say it would be easy, just fast.)) We’re now on a first-name basis with dozens of people of varying ages, backgrounds, personalities and interests whose common ground is as age-old as it gets: we share a common geography, and therefore we make an effort to get along with one another. It makes everyday interactions much, much more pleasant. Our neighbours notice when the baby learns a new trick, has a growth spurt, or is wearing a particularly adorable outfit – and in turn, they share their own delights and trials: a hellebore in bloom in their garden, a new grandchild on the way, a parent recovering from major surgery.
The relationships I’ve just described are what social media experts call “loose ties”: the shallow, low-commitment interactions we have with the vast majority of the human beings we encounter in our lives. There are loads of naysayers who like to argue that these relationships are so inconsequential that they can be dismissed altogether – and that it’s silly to want to befriend people you lost touch with after fifth grade on Facebook, or to sign a petition because your grad school thesis supervisor tweeted about it, or donate money to Planned Parenthood because your favourite blogger asked you to.
But these loose ties matter. Ask any isolated, sleep-deprived new mom how much she appreciates the brief snatches of conversation she gets with her barista or the grocery store cashier. Is the sense of connectedness any less real because she doesn’t know the names of the people involved? Or because they may never lay eyes on each other again?
Ask an introverted art song lover how he’d feel if his favourite podcast stopped broadcasting. Is the excitement of finding a community of people who share your passion for a niche-within-a-niche hobby diminished by the fact he’s never seen the hosts’ faces?
Ask a foodie about the delightful French guy at the farmer’s market who sells heirloom tomatoes and basil with such joy that everyone who encounters him feels like a long-lost friend welcomed home. How do you measure the impact of that mile-wide smile and the scent of those sun-warmed Black Russians?
Ask me how big I smiled when I saw that picture of Jason – the friend I’ve never met.