Through my childhood, I was always told ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and pretty much had the phrase ‘stranger danger’ branded into my brain by my parents and teachers. Then I went onto high school, and with the internet becoming more accessible to us teeny bops, we were always told those scary anecdotes of meeting up with strangers from the internet like the girl that met up with a girl she’d been talking to in the local shopping centre and finding out it was actually a fifty-year old paedophile or the boy that shared his address with a friend via MSN and ending up being stalked by some psychotic hacker or what other garbage the education system drivelled on about. And yes, while these may be true in some cases, I think it was just the school’s way of making out that the internet was a dangerous place simply because they didn’t realise how wonderful it actually could be.
I didn’t start using the internet for anything other than researching homework projects until I was about twelve or thirteen when ‘Bebo’ was slowly becoming the new ‘MySpace’ and the last thing you’d say to your friends at the end of the school day was “MSN tonight?”. It gave me a whole new sort of social life. Before the internet, I had to beg my parents to let me top up my phone to get like a hundred texts which would last me about five minutes and then I’d be credit-less for the next month. And the only way I’d be able to talk to my friends since we lived in a huge town was by the landline, and that was just annoying because we really didn’t want our parents to be eavesdropping over who was ‘going out’ with who and who was ‘crushing’ on who. I mean, nobody was supposed to know that sort of life-changing information apart from us pre-teen gal pals. But MSN let us do it in secret, and it also gave us a life-line to ‘flirt’ with our crushes by appearing offline and then going back online constantly, causing a ripple of notifications to appear on their screen, reminding them that we were still alive and existed and sometimes we were lucky enough to get a message off them (usually it was to ask if we had any cool ‘emoticons’ with a dollar sign for every ’s’ or an upside down crucifix for a ’t’ that made it feel like every conversation was written in arabic) but the less about that the better.
Then, at the prime age of thirteen, George Sampson won Britain’s Got Talent *swoon* and I discovered chatrooms dedicated to fangirling over him – unless your name is Judy, you cannot judge me. Before this, my only chance to share my love for this body-popping heartthrob was while swinging over the railings by the portacabin classrooms at lunchtime. But now, there were people who actually fangirled with me since before I was just fangirling in the presence of my friends who really couldn’t care less about it. They knew what I was going on about. They knew what it felt like when he did that backflip into the water and.. they understood me! Growing up as a fangirl for Spice Girls then N’Sync and Boyzone and Backstreet Boys and the typical 90s boybands then S Club 7 and then S Club Juniors and then Gareth Gates and then Busted, I was always classed as the weird girl. I was that girl in primary school who used to make all her friends recreate dance routines that my favourite bands had performed on the Saturday morning television programmes. But now, I’d found my people! And it was great. I can remember sneaking onto my laptop in the middle of the night to chat with my newfound friends, fangirling that George was going to be in a movie or typing the lyrics to his singles (yes, he released singles and they were pretty fabulous) to everyone and having them type the next line back to me. It was amazing. They actually understood me and didn’t judge me or refuse to let me be the Frankie of S Club Juniors when we did our own One Step Closer dance routine at break or remind me that Busted had split up – it still hurts to this very day *sobs*.
I even met up with a few of the friends that I had made through George Sampson – some I’m still in contact with to this very day, seven years later, and one who is still my best friend who I see as regularly as I possibly can. We shared our teenage years together, even though we lived hundreds of miles apart. I look back now and think of them with the same fondness as the friends I had made via school. I remember the memories I made with them the same amount as the memories I made with my school friends. Just because we couldn’t sit together at lunch or pass notes across the classroom to one another, it didn’t mean we didn’t have a typical teenage friendship. We used to text each other or go on MSN and tell each other about our crushes – I even remember texting one of my internet friends a few moments after I had had my first kiss. (HAHA, I SAID ‘HAD HAD’ AND IT MADE SENSE). We used to bicker about the slightest things, but we also used to have so many laughs: MSN webcams whilst we were doing homework or revising for our SATs, Skype calls on weekends as we watched X Factor and then decided to play ‘who can look the ugliest without the other one print screening and uploading to Bebo’.
And even now, I have friends I’ve met on the internet – most I consider my best friends as they’ve been a constant in my life with moving away to university. Knowing that no matter what, they’re always at the end of the phone to brighten up my day and make me feel better when life is getting a bit tough. You realise that distance really doesn’t matter when you grow up a bit and see that a train or a plane is nothing when true friendship is at the end of it (plus, with Netflix around these days, a train or a plane journey flies by – no pun intended). And I know for a fact that these friendships that I have now with people from all over the place are going to last a very long time.
(Shoutout to Charlie and Aisha. I said I’d mention you and I did! Now please start laughing at all my jokes because, as internet best friends, that is what you’re supposed to do – a simple ‘lol’ will suffice. Also, thank-you for putting up with me and not blocking me after all these years because if I had to deal with me, I’d have blocked me from day one. LOVE YOU BOTH!)
There have been times where reality has got me down and all I had to do was sign into MSN or just send a simple tweet and my internet friends would pop up and make sure I was okay. Sometimes, it seemed like they cared more than my friends from school did. Sometimes, it seemed like they knew more about me than my friends from school did. Sometimes, it seemed like they understood me more than anybody in the world did.
It just goes to show that people you meet on the internet aren’t always harmful. Obviously there are precautions you should take if you’re meeting up with internet friends such as letting people know where you’re going and who you’re going with, even taking someone with you; not giving out personal information over the internet like your address or bank details (in other words, using common sense). Children are taught about ‘stranger danger’ but at the end of the day, if you truly think about it, every person is a stranger to you until you meet them. You didn’t see your best friend for the first time and instantly know everything about them – they were a stranger to you. Same goes for internet friends.
And maybe you don’t get the whole internet friends and think it’s quite sad that people can be friends with someone they’ve never met before, but maybe we think the same about you – maybe we think that it’s quite sad that you think you don’t have what it takes to maintain a friendship through phone calls or texts or seeing each other once a year or whatever and that you need to see your friends every day to be able to be friends with them. Nobody should judge each other on how people make friends because you don’t know the real reason why that person might find it easier to make friends through texts instead of in person. Some people aren’t lucky to be blessed with confidence or to be surrounded by people who want to be friends with them. I think the whole stamina behind internet friends is slowly changing towards it being a cool thing and I love it. I mean, having friends in exotic places on the other side of the planet and being so close that it’s like they live on the other side of the street to you.. that’s what the internet is for. Without sounding like an old O2 advert or like a Human Centipede enthusiast, we’re better connected. Plus, free holidays, aye-aye-aye!
So high-five to all those internet friendships out there, making use of the internet in a positive way and kicking the social stigma of internet friends in the ass!