The act of talking to people online and becoming friends with them often gets a bad reputation. The stories about the danger and unfortunate consequences it has led for some people get publicized multiple times a year.
It's these things that have led to a negative perception of the online community. The thing people tend to forget is that online friendships can have a positive side as well. When done properly and safely having online friendships can have a lot of benefits.
Online friendships have been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember. I have had the fortunate experience of being able to build quality relationships with people that yes… I met online. I've also been lucky enough to meet some of these people in person and have each of these meetings turn out great.
If you've been lucky enough to experience a good online friendship, this is a feeling you understand.
For those people who haven't, it can be a tricky thing to grasp. It seems impossible or even unsafe to tell people information about yourself that you've only met on the internet.
Everyone on the internet isn't a bad person and trying to scam or fool someone. Wow, it's shocking, isn't it?
A large part of online friendships is formed through common and/or similar interests. Fandom is the thing that can bring the largest group of people together, especially online. I can't even begin to tell you the number of group chats I have for "The Flash", musical theatre and any other reason you could find me online.
If a television show or movie is good, I enjoy and love watching it. The number of times "Grey's Anatomy" or "The Flash" has been rewatched on Netflix are countless. I can listen to some of my favorite musicals on loop for hours on end. As much as I can enjoy these things alone, there's always something special about sharing it with someone.
It's not always easy to find people in real life that you share things in common with, especially when you're no longer in school. When you get online, you're able to find those people by a click or quick search. Over time, you begin to find people who you genuinely have a connection to you. You begin to have inside jokes, share some personal things, and go to each other when you have good or bad news to share.
For many of us, our online friendships are just another way to communicate with those around us. It feels just like texting any of my friends who I've known forever.
After leaving conventions, I don't want to lose contact with those with whom I've connected and formed a makeshift friendship. When talking online, we're able to maintain the friendship that we started. The convention is also the place where I've met many of my online friends for the first time.
After many months or sometimes even years of chatting online, it's exciting to finally meet these people. It's essentially like seeing a longtime friend you haven't seen in a long time.
My groupchats/chats for The Flash. Aisha Turnquist
Online friendships and fandoms allow many people to be a part of a community. It allows for many people to have the feeling of inclusion that can be missing from their everyday life. The feeling of being lonely is not an easy one and can take a toll on your mental health. The constant feeling of loneliness can leave someone depressed and often anxious about forming new relationships.
The ability to be able to go online and make friends can alleviate those feelings of loneliness. Many of my online friends can tell you how their mental health has improved due to their online relationships.
This is a constant struggle for those with physical disabilities that limit the places they can go or visit. I have several online friends with physical disabilities who enjoy the access the internet gives them to share the same interests many of us have.
It also gives you the opportunity to be able to understand their daily struggles. This also includes those with mental challenges that lead to troubles with communication and those with autism.
The online community is the safe haven that allows them to communicate with the rest of the world even if they can't always get the chance in real life.
These relationships allow a safe place to express themselves without judgment. You're able to get things off your chest and not hold them in which can lead to lower stress levels. In addition, when people battle things like mental health and addiction, they can find solace in the fact that they're not alone and be able to share their struggles with each other.
It's also in these friendships people can be open about their sexualities. I know many people who are open about being LGBTQ+ online, who are not out in real life. It's a proud and amazing feeling for them that only their online friends could provide for them.
As an introvert, there are times when I prefer to be alone, but I don't want to be lonely. It may take a while for me to warm up to you and be a completely open book, but when I do I'm your truest friend.
It's a thing many introverts can understand, when others cannot.
There's something easier talking to someone through a screen than in person and one of the reasons I love having my online friends.
The online community you create for yourself is the place you don't have to please anyone or be fake. You're allowed to be yourself and have no one judge you for it. There are times when there is pressure to impress people in real life, but that feeling is often not found here.
The benefit of communicating with others online is not only their friendship, but being exposed to different cultures.
A decent size of my online friends are not from the United States. I've been able to meet people that hail from many different countries that include: Canada, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Australia, The Netherlands and more.
It's an interesting point of view that my international friends can give me about myself and my country. It also gives me a chance to be able to view and understand a different culture than my own. There is a huge difference in learning about a country via your normal news circuit, textbook or video.
The knowledge I've gained about international politics and life has helped me to form better opinions about things that not only affect those in my country, but also worldwide. I may not ever get the chance to visit many of these countries, but I will have a close-up point of view due to my online friends.
Also, if I do get a chance to visit these countries, I will have a friend ready to guide me along the way.
In a time where many people have a lack of understanding of others, it's worthwhile to take the time to learn and talk to others with a different experience from you. These are experiences that are not only different in culture, but in lifestyle, career, wealth status and health.
You'll find that you have more in common than you think. I promise.
When you take the time to listen, you began to understand people better and able to grow empathy.
I remember when I first engaged in the musical theatre community, particularly in the instance of In the Heights. I had the opportunity to connect with many Puerto Ricans*, a culture in which I've been able to experience.
Even though I've been exposed to it, there were new things I began to learn from talking to my new friends.
When Hurricane Maria hit the island, I was able to hear about the first-hand experiences. It allowed me to see a perspective many others failed to understand. Even without prior connections, I realized these people were humans who deserved the same treatment as anyone else.
It also helped for my online friends to know that there was those out there that truly cared and had compassion for them.
The more you move outside of your bubble (through any means), the more understanding you become of others.
*Just your reminder that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
This is not to advocate for people not to be cautious online. You should be cautious, but don't miss out on the fun you could be having as well.
When meeting online friends in person, I've always met them in public and open spaces. I've established they are who they claim to be via methods like Facetime and Skype. Personal information, that includes my phone number, has never been shared with little to no people (I've probably only shared it with two, but they've been my friends for a long time.)
Do the vetting process properly and it could lead you to some of the best relationships you've had in your life.
There are some that say you can lose yourself online, but I would say I found myself. My online friends have helped me discover things about myself, I may have never known.
Online friendships are real friendships. People would always tell me they were lucky for me to be in their lives, but I would say I am also the lucky one. The time I've spent with my online friends has brought me just as much happiness and joy as anyone in real life could.
I may not be able to (or ever) meet all my online friends, but I appreciate them all. I do hope that many of you get to meet your online friends as well. It's a feeling like none other.
All I know is that these people have the power to change us for the better…or rather for good.