Ethereal Connections

Early this year, a Facebook friend (who was, first, a fellow blogger) added me to a Facebook group of “back when” bloggers. The group was created, as I understand it, to generate “conversations” between bloggers about their posts. You know (or maybe you don’t), the way it used to be: people would read posts and comment about them and a conversation would develop in the ether between several bloggers. Initially, I loved the Facebook group idea. But then the apparent lack of engagement, as I perceived it, suggested the idea wouldn’t work. But then it did. And it spurred me, at least, to try to keep up with some of group members’ blogs. Which leads me to today’s post.

My email this morning included an alert that a new post had been added to a Facebook group member’s blog (I had added my email address to the blog’s notification list). The post was a letter to the blogger’s future self, explaining that she had started a new job on May 7. I do not know the blogger. I’ve had no more than two or three online interactions with her. But those few interactions sparked an interest in learning more about her. When I first came up on her blog, I read several past posts. Now, I feel like I knew quite a bit about her. One of her posts was an honest reflection of how she became estranged from her sister. The comments made on that post, from many years ago, ranged from compassionate to cruel. And one of her posts, from the first of December, explained that she had just lost her job, the job she held for more than ten years. We can learn a lot about people by listening to, or reading, what they say. And we can develop, if not a friendship, at least a kinship with them. Knowing a bit about the lives of people with whom we have casual interactions tends to make them—oh, I don’t know—more human. They begin to matter. Even if it’s extremely likely that we’ll never speak directly to one another or meet. But the likelihood of not meeting is not necessarily a fact. More on that in a minute.

In addition to the woman whose blog I read this morning and who lives someplace I don’t know just where, a budding relationship is developing with other members of the group. The guy who started the group is a long-time blogger, author, actor, newspaper columnist, and committed thinker and walker. He writes about everything and he reveals quite a lot about himself. Everything he writes demands the reader to think about the words he shares. He’s an excellent writer and I find it absolutely fascinating to read what he writes. By reading his blog and his Facebook posts and comments, I’ve learned about his son, his wife and her work, the kinds of things he enjoys doing, and a little about his history and how his life has changed over the years. Truly intriguing to get to know a person that way, as if we’ve spent time together over the years without ever having met.

Another of the Facebook group members, an American woman who lives in Sweden and is married to a Swedish man (I think he’s Swedish) posts to her blog relatively often (in spurts, at least), offering tidbits about her life and the way of life in Sweden. By reading what she writes about her daughter’s upcoming graduation, I learned quite a lot about how American and Swedish schools and how they are radically different from one another in some fundamental ways. I know by reading her posts and her comments that she has a good sense of humor.

A recent addition to the group is a retired general surgeon who now writes a column for a newspaper. I don’t know much about him, but the style and substance of his writing suggests to me we’d get along just fine, provided we could overlook any fundamental differences of philosophy that we might discover. He’s an author, as well, having written a book entitled, Cutting Remarks.  Retired surgeon. Get it? Unlike some of the other bloggers, he generally sticks to political and philosophical issues (with many posts littered with acerbic comments about politicians and those who support them). While he doesn’t reveal much personally, one understand quite a lot about how he thinks by reading what he writes.

Another blog that focuses on one topic like a laser beam deals with whiskey. Yes, reviews of what I consider exotic whiskeys. It’s not so much the whiskey the guy writes about that intrigues me, but the way he writes. It’s like reading first-person fiction with an acidic wash and a sharp wit.

All of this is the stuff of which friendships are made in “real life.” But communicating through the ether on the internet isn’t the same as communicating face-to-face or even voice-to-voice. The missing tone of voice, the absence of a facial expression that amplifies or completely changes the message a comment sends. These voids, coupled with the relative infrequency of communication, make real friendships impossible, don’t they? Well, online relationships don’t necessarily parallel face-to-face relationships, but they can be relatively strong. Thanks to fellow bloggers following my posts and thanks to me following theirs, I got to know some people well enough that, when I traveled to places they were, I made a point of seeking them out. During trips to California, I met—face-to-face—Tara and Robin and Roger and Kathy and another Kathy. When I went to New York, I met Teresa and then visited with her again when she joined us on part of our train ride. I say I sought people out—in Teresa’s case, she traveled from Syracuse to New York City to meet me. Later, after I met Juan via a Facebook group for people from my hometown, he followed my blog. And we made a point of going to meet him at his home in Florida when we made a trip there. One Kathy and Juan seem to have vanished from my sphere, but I remain in infrequent contact with the others. Now, though, that contact is almost exclusively through Facebook or, on occasion, through blog visits. My point is that, during the heyday of bloggery (at least in what I consider the heyday), exchanges online grew into relationships of sufficient depth that bloggers actually wanted to meet one another. I remember once, long ago, I proposed to a group of bloggers that we all meet somewhere in the middle of the country for a day or two of social engagement. The idea met with approval, but the outpouring of support was inadequate to propel it to reality. It gradually dissipated and blew away.

I suppose most of the relationships one develops online are similar in many ways to pen-pals (though I never had any nor was one). Friendly, but not overly close; trusting, but unwilling to share credit card numbers and PINs. Yet some of them grow and the bonds become stronger. A sister-in-law met her late husband online while buying and trading music CDs; she lived in California, he lived in Massachusetts, but the internet, then telephone, then cross-country visits led to much more.

I can count on the fingers of one hand, with the thumb and two fingers missing, the number of people I consider very close friends. I suppose the online relationships I develop, though they are superficial in many ways, fills that void to some extent. Maybe that explains why I so enjoy connecting with people through their blogs more than through Facebook. If interactions and relationships through blogs are somewhat superficial, FOFOs (that’s friends on Facebook only) are almost garish in their superficiality. In my experience, most people don’t share as deeply on Facebook as they do on their blogs. There’s no real or imaginary limit to the length of a blog post, whereas long Facebook posts seem intrusive in some fashion. Not all bloggers reveal a lot about themselves on their blogs. Many—perhaps most—focus exclusively on one topic: like food or politics or nature or bobcats or marsupials. But many bloggers fashion their blogs into journals of sorts that, when read in large swaths, paint a fairly accurate picture of the writer’s personality, political stances, likes and dislikes, and family ties. In other words, they reveal enough about themselves that people who share enough commonalities with them could very well become their friends. Except for the impossibility (in my not-entirely-solidly-held opinion) of really knowing a person without ever having been in the physical presence of that person.

I like developing a new cadre of electronic acquaintances who write and who read what others write. It reminds me of the “old days” when people stumbled on others’ blogs, commented, and sparked dialogue. Today, it’s extremely rare for anyone who doesn’t already know me to read my blog, much less comment. Of course, I’ve never tried to market it and develop a readership, but in the “old days” people did just stumble across it. With millions and millions of other web places to trip over, it’s understandable that not many get there. And fewer still say anything. So this recent development of recreating the environment that many of us who’ve been blogging for years remember so well is a welcome one. I am glad it happened and happier still it seems to be taking off. It may not last, but while it does, it’s fun and enlightening. And I’ve added several blogs to my blogroll. Speaking of which, here are some new (to me since the first of the year) blogs that are worth “stumbling” upon:

Enough for now. I just wanted to record what was on my mind with respect to blogging. Facebook certain changed blogging. But maybe Facebook, in spite of itself, can be tricked into promoting blogs and bloggery. Time will tell. It always does.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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