Cyber Friends, Hard to Hug, But Just as Real
By Cynthia MacGregor / November, December 2012

Friendship in the lives of women has undergone some profound changes, reflecting changes in society. Not so long ago, your closest friends were likely to be your neighbors. Back in the '50s, most women didn't work, and neighbors dropped in for coffee and soon became good friends. The telephone was a great means of communication, and a woman and her friends might gab on it for protracted periods. But most of her socialization took place over coffee cake at the kitchen table or while sharing hairdresser appointments with friends.

Things started changing in the '60s. Partly, it was the fact that more women were in the workforce. A woman's friends were still likely to live nearby, but now they were as likely to be friends from work with whom she chatted over drinks after five o'clock.

But partly, too, it was the fact that our society was becoming more mobile. No longer did most people automatically settle down in the same towns or cities where they had grown up. As people moved, they distanced themselves physically - but not emotionally - from their old friends. We got used to having close friends who lived at a distance.

By the '80s, we were used to having friends in distant places - friends we had met in college; friends who had been transferred by their jobs, or whose husbands had been similarly uprooted; or friends who struck out for another city just because they had always wanted to live in San Francisco or New Orleans. We stayed in touch by phone, mail, and such alternative means as "living letters" - remember those tape-recorded messages we sent by mail?

Then came e-mail and the whole computer revolution. In chat rooms and on special interest lists for quilters, chihuahua owners, and left-handed flugelhorn players, we met others who shared our hobbies and interests, or suffered from the same health issues we did, or worked in the same fields we did, or otherwise belonged to the same "community." Not a physical community, delineated by municipal boundaries, but a cyber community of people with shared interests or situations. And how did we keep in touch with them? By e-mail.

We formed real attachments to many of them. I have yet to ever be in the same room - or even the same state - as my friend Deb, yet I consider her one of my dearest friends. She lives in California, so I've never cooked dinner for her, can't invite her to my annual birthday party, have never seen her home or met her boyfriend, have never even met her face-to-face. Yet she is no less a real friend than Natalie from Lake Worth. Nor is she the only friend who "lives in my computer."

Cyber hugs (expressed {} onscreen) can't replace real hugs, but cyber friends are nonetheless real friends in a way that would have been inconceivable in the '50s. Then, non-local friends were often relegated to pen-pal status; even those once considered close friends were often diminished in the hierarchy, if they moved out of town. We could keep in touch only by mail and the occasional phone call on Christmas or a birthday.

While most cell phones and even many landlines now offer flat-rate long-distance rates, it is computers that are at the heart of the friendship revolution. While many circumstances of the 21st century are cause for friends being separated by distance, e-mail sees to it that distance is no barrier to friendship.

Let the Luddites decry computers, if they wish, but I have a computer filled with friends, and I value them as much as I value the machine itself and all the good it has brought into my life.

I wish I could put my arms around Deb and the others in a real hug. But they certainly are real friends

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