Over Thanksgiving I got the chance to meet old friends and new ones, all people I crossed paths with through school and writing. You could sense a little trepidation from all involved, because let’s face it, asking introverts to go across a big city at night to meet a stranger (especially one who uses a borrowed kitten as an icon) is a little scary. Everyone knows you need to be careful about strangers and the internet. Except we weren’t strangers. Or at least, not much stranger than the other people in the restaurant. (It may be just as well that the folks at the other breakfast table on Saturday were hard of hearing, though, but anyway . . .) You see, in a way, the internet has resurrected the very old tradition of acquaintances based on the written word.
One of the things that made Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) so important was his network of correspondents. He knew people who wrote to other people, and in many ways he connected all the major thinkers of Europe at the time. Going back farther, Paul of Tarsus wrote to everyone who left a forwarding address (or so it seems at times), connecting Rome with Corinth with Jerusalem and beyond. And although the medievals were a lot more mobile than we used to give them credit, letters and information still traveled far more widely than individuals. Professional acquaintances, personal friendships, scientific research, all progressed because of letters passing north and south, east and west.
Today we have the internet. I have never met Sarah Hoyt in person, but we are friends. Ditto Shadowdancer, Eamon, RES, and other denizens of certain blogs and forums. We share ideas and information, and can pretty quickly link chains of knowledge to find (or drag in) experts on various topics if necessary. Through blog-friends, I am two person-links away from experts on Islamic history, US foreign policy, plant genetics, and computer security. And other things I’d probably just as soon not know about.
And some people I’ve met in real life. It’s kinda awkward, because let’s face it, most of us don’t look exactly like our avatars. I’ve been assured that Shadowdancer is a bit more frazzled looking, Foxfier’s ears don’t show up that much in artificial light, and that Larry C. isn’t quite that green. So when I met with some folks back at Thanksgiving, we did the usual, “OK, we’ll meet here, at this time, and I kinda look like [description].” And I always add “I’m the short redhead under the cowboy-ish hat.” Which has worked 100% thus far, in part because east of the Missouri River, cowboy hats are a little sparse. (In fact, I discovered several years ago that within certain circles I’m known as “Grey Hat” because all that people could see of me in a dense crowd was the unusual grey hat I wore.)
Thus far, everyone from the ‘Net that I’ve met in the flesh have been delightful people to spend time with. Smart, interesting, perhaps not exactly talkative and outgoing, but neat folks to chat with and learn from. A few that I have yet to meet in the flesh have become “three AM friends,” in that if the phone rang at three AM and a voice said, “Um, I need a little hand. And bail money,” I’d call in sick, go get them, and then ask what the fuzz kind of party was it and why wasn’t I invited (or something similar). And I can assure you, there are precious few people in my pretty-large circle of acquaintances that fit that description.
For all that we lambaste the problems the ‘Net causes, which are many and verified, people voiced many of the same complaints about the printing press and the scurrilous pamphlets, tracts, and drawings designed to incite and inflame popular opinion and to corrupt the ignorant and innocent. The ‘Net also allows people to “gather” and to learn, to form new friendships and to strengthen old ones. A few bloggers and website managers have become our new Erasmuses, connecting people across the world and encouraging the spread of ideas and information. For good and for ill; because the Internet connects humans, and we humans do love seeing what mischief we can cause with a new toy.