Internet friends are a weird thing. They're scattered, often anonymous, and you'll likely never meet them. Heck, until recently, there was a good chance you'd never even see their face. It's easy to feel like these people are some sort of cheap knockoff, a pirate version of a real friend that you hauled down over your telephone line.
That's a poor way to think of them though. Internet friends are a bit more like an expansion pack for the Friend game. They're an extra that you can totally do without, but that once you have seems completely perfect. Think of them as the Brood War to your Starcraft. No, anyone? Kids these days, no respect for the classics.
I first encountered other people online sometime when I was about 10 years old. It was the first time we had a really stable ADSL connection, and the first time I actually had a full blown computer with a connection to the Internet. Before this point, we had crappy ADSL or dial-up, hooked in to a family computer that was invariably used by me and my brother. Eventually he got a flashy new desktop, and I got to take over the lumbering old beige beast we'd had since the early 2000's. That thing was my first computer. I'd taken it apart dozens of times. My first real brush with computer hardware a few years earlier was installing an Ethernet card for it. Even once we had Internet I didn't use it much, partly because the Internet was still mostly a weird foreign thing at the time, because this is Africa. Around the time I turned 10, he traded up to a laptop because he had a scholarship for high school in the USA, and I inherited his old desktop. This was where things got real.
Since I was now the main computer user in the house, with my brother away, I was the one who had most of the Internet. We also finally had stable ADSL, which wouldn't support video streaming but could totally handle webpages. So I started wandering the web. I mostly stumbled through fandom wikis and tech blogs, reading what I could and not really interacting. I had a Facebook that I never used, and an Email that was pointless.
And then I discovered IRC and forums. IRC was the first place I talked to people online. I'll do an article on what IRC is later, but for now just know that it's one of the oldest instant messengers on Earth. IRC lets you chat instantly over even the crappiest of lines. I can't even remember which servers and channels I was on, but I was actually talking to people. Of course, I knew the basic rules for Interacting Online:
- Don't use your name
- Don't tell people who/where you are
- Don't agree to meet people
- Use you goddamn head
- Don't buy anything
Slowly I lost touch, I just stopped going on IRC. Maybe Facebook gaining traction, maybe me starting to play video games more. Who knows, but my circle of friends became far more local than it used to be.
And then the Furry Fandom happened, and it happened hard, when I was maybe 15. Through a complex interaction of my own neuroses I ended up signing up to the South Africa Anthro fandom forum because I was too embarrassed to admit to an actual fur that I just knew this crap without being one. And the cycle began all over again. Forums are a little different. If you weren't around when something was said, you can just scroll back. Posts hang around forever, people post in great bursts during their down time and then vanish for the day.
An old haunt
And again, stuff broke. I vanished, accounts were deleted. Most of that part of my online prescence was destroyed in a single day. The name stayed on, Kalium_Puceon, because that was something I knew I wouldn't change for a long time. Those friends dropped off the radar, even though if I wanted to I'm sure I could find them right where they always were.
A few years passed, I became the webcomic obsessed, amateur coder that I am now. I got a tumblr, although I don't use it the right way, and I once again shrunk my social circle to the real world.
And then I remembered IRC. What triggered this I have no idea, maybe it was remembering fandom chat, maybe because I knew it was a place where coders hung out and gave advice, slowly dredges of information swirled into my mind. I remembered the the xkcd comic had and IRC channel. "Sounds like a place I could fit in," I probably thought. Well, I was right.
A few months ago I joined the #xkcd channel on irc.foonetic.net. It's the largest channel on a small server, averaging a population of 350. It's full of geeks, the kinds of people who adore the xkcd comics. They're programmers and lab technicians and artists and makers. They'll get into pages of debate over how to resolve a current leak in a laptop charger, and they'll point you in a hundred different directions if you ask for advice. They're tightly knit, and they've been around a while. Most of the users have been chatting for over four years. The channel bot has hundreds of funny quotes from users, in fact, it's been taught so much it sometimes feels like it's alive too. Emergent behaviour is strange.
A new home, for now
And here, in a few months, I've become familiar with a whole new set of people. They're from all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds. They're gay and straight and bi and ace and trans and cis and black and white and brown and everything in between. They're Internet friends. We know each other. We commiserate when something goes wrong, we share and watch videos. Heck, there was a SpaceX stream a few weeks back where the channel was blazing with discussion. It's our own little piece of Internet, a small space carved out by a bunch of people who said "This will do nicely" and settled down. For the moment, we're all connected, and we're all talking.
IRC is an interesting medium. It's pure text. You can send URL's usually links to images and interesting webpages, and with some work the bots can form a file sharing system, but, at it's heart, it's text. You never hear the person on the other side. You'll probably never see their face. Unless you're bizarrely lucky, you'll never meet them, and if you do, you might not recognise them.
Someday I may once again vanish from this channel, never to be seen again. I might not, I might be like those old users who become permanent, a given, someone who's always there to talk to and always will be. Maybe I'll go back to the old fandoms, old places, meet those people again if they're still there. The future is uncertain and confusing, but I can always be sure that no matter what, I'll always be able to find a new space, for new people and old ones, somewhere on that great wide space we call the Internet.
Go out there, and make some friends! Trust me, it'll be fine.
Oh, and if you need to find me, I'll be hanging around on #xkcd most of the time. Look for <Kalium>, I'm always happy to talk.
Your friendly ex-canine,
EDIT: I was 10 not 12, what the heck brain.