Remember the days when our parents told us not to talk to strangers on the internet?
We were taught to cower in fear when an AOL instant message popped up with a screen name we didn’t recognize, to decline every friend request on social media that didn’t come from someone we knew in real life.
I didn’t even use my own name on any of my email addresses, Xanga entries, or MySpace profiles.
Then I became a mom and my online friends became my lifeline.
Mom groups, message boards, forums, bump buddies, due date trackers, breastfeeding support… slowly but surely, I shared more and more of my life with strangers on the internet.
The more I read what other moms shared, the closer I felt to them, the stronger our bond became.
The friends in these groups and communities knew more about me than most of the people in my real life.
We shared stories of heartbreak, triumph, insecurity, infidelity, financial woes, family feuds, and everything else in between.
These women went from tiny profile pictures to tried and true, closely knit, friends, confidants, and support systems.
My internet friends were real friends, regardless of whether we’d ever met in person.
My husband liked to tease me about how much I talked with my internet friends, how invested we were in each others’ lives. He joked about the friends I texted and exchanged cards with, the nerdiness of chatting online with people in time zones I’d never visited.
He really had a field day whenever I made plans to meet some of them.
Wherever my work as a photographer or our travels as a family took me, I had at least one internet friend in the area who I was ecstatic to finally meet.
Getting to hug and laugh and sit across from these people I knew so intimately was an enormous gift, one I thought was the ultimate peak of friendship.
Then a global pandemic hit.
Restaurants closed, businesses shuttered, employees worked from home. Masks covered our faces, disease kept us distanced, and many of us found ourselves alone, isolated, trapped at home without much social interaction.
We faced fines, judgement, and illness if we dared spend time with our friends, and the reality of just how important it was to our well-being to have relationships, conversations, connections.
At the time of writing this, I still have friends I haven’t seen in nearly 6 months, people I’ve known for years and used to see at least weekly. People who are an important part of my life but not currently allowed in it.
But my internet friends, they’re still there.
The women from across the globe, the friends I was already distanced from, they’re just as available and consistent as ever.
They’re a few clicks away, waiting for me in a group or forum. They’re where they’ve always been, available and welcoming, supportive and connected. We’ve been able to check in, chat, vent, encourage, and laugh together, just as we always have.
Nothing has changed in these online relationships, everything remains the same with my forum friends.
We know the names of each others’ children, the struggles we encounter with our partners.
We celebrate birthdays, test results, big news and exciting moves. We walk through diagnoses, parenting frustrations, and celebrity crushes. We know each other as well as we always have, and we haven’t had to miss each other while we’re separated from so many others.
The storms I’ve weathered and the victories I’ve celebrated haven’t had to wait, haven’t had to be diluted. We haven’t had to adjust to a “new normal” because this has always been our normal.
We haven’t mourned our friendship because it remains as accessible as always. While we’ve been locked away from the world, our personal little corner of it remains active.
My internet friends have always been real friends, but in the midst of quarantines and illness they have proven themselves to be consistent, dependable, and safe friends.
Joking with my friend in Memphis doesn’t put anyone’s health at risk. Advice from my friend in Australia doesn’t cost thousands of dollars in travel. What I haven’t been able to experience in person, I’ve been given through the miracle of the internet.
I may never meet most of these friends. I may never get to hug the neck of my Seattle sister or share a meal with my California confidante.
I may never see more of them than the photos they share or laugh with them outside of memes and swapped stories. But I will treasure their friendship.
I will protect and nurture it, benefit and invest.
My internet friends have always meant so much to me, but never more than when the world was forced to lock itself inside.
I am so thankful for these women, these very real friends with whom I share very real connections, and how their presence has made a big, closed-off world feel so small and welcoming.
Thank you, friends of the internet, for being stronger than a pandemic, stronger than distance, and for making me stronger for knowing you.