When I first got online, I was 13 and very few people I knew had internet access. With the exception of one cousin at university, the only people I emailed and chatted with were people I had met in chatrooms and newsgroups. I'd stay up all night sometimes, on alt.something, email, IRC, ICQ, AIM, BBS, just 'hanging out' and having heartfelt conversations with these screen names, these people I had never met but felt very comfortable talking to.
There was a period where I felt closer to my online friends than to my offline friends. It should tell you something that I'd make the distinction at all between online and offline friends. That's what it was like back then. I was a kid with two distinct lives.
In the real world, I was a nobody teenager with braces, bad skin and a confusing social life. In the virtual world, which felt no less real to me, I had amassed a small audience through my writing and made friendships I still hold dear to this day.
My online friends and I swapped mail, talked on the phone, one even flew over to visit, though in hindsight, I was wholly unprepared and way too unsure of myself to know what it meant to suddenly become friends offline too.
As I got older, I started getting to know people in my city who didn't live close enough to just hang out with. It happens, I guess - you grow up, get jobs, meet more people. And offline friends moved away too and became online friends through distance. Technology made it possible to stay close.
The way I understood friendships changed, broadened. Rather than being based on how much I saw a person or how often we giggled together, the relationships I valued came to be based on trust and care, mutual enrichment and a willingness to relate.
Some friendships are better over distance. There's just not enough of that day-to-day compatibility to weather constant contact. But some friendships are far better in person, especially when you respond to situations in ways that make the experiences more fun for both of you. These measurements, I realised, applied to every relationship regardless of whether they started in meatspace or on the internet.
As the years passed, it felt more natural to refer to online and offline friendships as simply "friendships". Turns out the distinction doesn't matter. One of my best friends lives a few suburbs away; we see each other every couple of weeks. Another bestie lives on the other side of the world; we talk every day, more than we used to when we lived in the same city.
Another good friend and I chat almost exclusively via post. We talk about life and love and fear in one long conversation stretched out over weeks and months. We've known each other nearly twenty years. We still haven't met.