human:KIND – Why Digital Friendships Matter

Welcome to human:KIND – our regular space to chat about the things that make us human. This time Paul talks about something that kept him going during a very lonely time.

Smalltown Boy

I got married very young. So young, in fact, that I was still a student at the time. My wife had just graduated and started working over the summer but when we returned from our honeymoon I started back at university for another year. That is probably the reason why we ended up staying in a small market town just outside Liverpool for over twenty years. Had we finished together we could probably have gone wherever the work took us – the world would have been our proverbial lobster.

But that crossover year meant that by the time I finished we were pretty much settled there. My wife had her job, we had become involved with a local church, we had made several good friends, and we liked the place. And for twenty years we carried on, starting each day by commuting off to various close-by towns and cities; Liverpool, Southport, Preston, Warrington, Manchester, Wigan. Whenever circumstance (or choice) forced a change of job we tried to stay as close to home as we could. When my wife worked in Manchester, I stayed closer to home, meaning I was able to get chores done and make the dinner in time for her return home. Wherever we worked, we kept our charming little town in the epicentre.

Everything Changes

And then one day, by pure coincidence we both found ourselves working in Manchester (I was contracting and a recent job had ended, Mrs C was head-hunted), which was a good 40 miles away. But that wasn’t a problem because in a previous job she had worked there for over ten years and it had been mostly fine. But we soon found that both of us working so far away from home and relying on one car was problematic. What if I had to start early, or she had to work late, or I had a day off – and then there was the additional cost of petrol. Two people travelling in the same car every day costs significantly more than one person driving the same journey! The travelling cost was one thing, but the early starts and constant late nights were worse (not to mention traffic jams) – we began to rely on takeaways and ready meals, we never saw our friends, housework was almost non-existent.

So we had to make a difficult decision – either one of us had to quit our new job and look for work with an easier commute or we had to move closer to our new jobs. After much deliberation, we decided on the latter and applied for an apartment in Salford Quays – which we got, and were told we had to move in within two weeks! So we gave our month’s notice to our current landlord (giving us a valuable crossover fortnight in which to pack and move our stuff) and by the end of October 2015, we left our beloved little home in the country.

Living For The City

At first, we lived it up, enjoying the city life and the new experience of restaurants, cafes, bars, the cinema and the shops being within a short walk of the flat. We had more guests round for dinner or to stay in those first few months than we’d had in years in our old home. Soon my wife started to make new friends in her office, and meet up with them for after-work drinks, meals and the like. However, my workplace was on the far side of the city and most of my colleagues lived near to the office and I soon found that I didn’t actually have any local friends – only the ones I left behind, an hour’s drive away. I was starting to feel a little out of it as I’m not great at meeting new people (a few weeks ago I wrote about my discomfort socialising in large crowds).

Around this time I was (and still am) a frequent commenter on a popular entertainment website. After encountering some fairly nasty trolling in the message boards a number of us like-minded geeks clubbed together to create a Facebook group where we could discuss our favourite shows and films away from the toxic atmosphere that tends to descend whenever Star Wars or Doctor Who or [insert your fandom here] are mentioned. At first, we did just that, but soon we began to understand and trust each other a little more. Soon members were posting questions about everyday life, asking for advice on personal issues, using the group as a place to vent when they couldn’t do that with the ‘real’ people in their lives.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Months later I was still no closer to making many new local friends. There were one or two, although nobody particularly close. This concerned my mum, and when she confronted me with it, I told her about ‘The Geeks’ and not to worry. She wasn’t convinced, but I knew that these people who I had never met before, who were spread far and wide across the world, were indeed my friends. “But what do you do?” she asked. “We talk about films, books, comics, music, each other’s families, personal interests – the same stuff I’d talk to people about in a room face-to-face with them”. And in the autumn of that year, those of us who were able to finally met up for a night out, again a year later and we’ll be meeting for a further night out later this month. That group and those annual meetings kept me going through what was already a difficult move. but my mum still doesn’t really get it.

Earlier this year we moved closer to Manchester city centre and I finally plucked up the courage to join a writing group close to our new home, much to my mum’s delight! But without that Facebook group and the splendid folks who inhabit it, I wouldn’t have even been nudged to start writing fiction again. I’ve also been encouraged to take up hiking (more about that at the bottom of the page) and also, without that group this very site would not have come to fruition as many of us contribute writing towards it.

All Together Now

So, while I do think it is good to have friends who you can see in-the-flesh regularly, and you have to be careful who you share personal information with online, don’t let anyone tell you that your online friends aren’t as valid or worthy if you trust them and enjoy their virtual company!

This weekend (8th September 2018) I met up with a member of the Facebook group (and contributor to this site) Simon, who had encouraged me to push myself with my hiking training. Together we walked 28km and raised almost £300 for Diabetes UK (you can still donate up to the end of September 2018) but thanks to a last-minute diversion on the route, and a lengthy trek to the pub afterwards, we’re both fairly certain it was more likely over 30km). Although we had never met face-to-face before, we’ve talked to each other so much online over the last year or so that we instantly got on and had plenty to talk about on our lengthy escapade!

In May next year more of us from the Facebook group will be getting together to walk the 40 miles from Keswick to Barrow-In-Furness to raise money for charity – watch this space for more news on that in future.

Do you have online friends who are just as good as (or better than) face-to-face ones? Or do you agree with my mum that relationships like this are not as meaningful? Let us know what you think in the comments below, and remember, Be Human, Be Kind.

Join the fun - leave a comment below!