Friendship online

  In the desolate wastes of North Essex we have to make our own entertainment, but I don't think that completely explains why I have been brooding on the death of a deadhead's cat. The unfortunate beast was nineteen years old, and seems to have died as happily as a cat can, sheltering under his owner's parked car: for the last night of its life in California. Yet as I get email, day after day, lamenting the death of this beast and advising its owners how best to recover from their loss, it plays a greater and greater part in my imagination. I know it better than the cats around my house; I feel more for its owners than if they were neighbours.

This would not be odd if they were fictional characters. We're used to feeling far more for them than we do for real people: look at the death of Diana. But the oddest thing about the people engaging my imagination at the moment is that they really exist. I have met some of them, on a rather strange night in King's Cross eight years ago, when we drove all the whores out of a late-night Italian restaurant by playing tapes of the show we had just attended. One I know quite well. I even have a photograph of her (thriving) cat. Others have told me all kinds of stuff about their lives and work even though we have never met and everyone on the chain seems to be vouched for by someone else.

If we were being marketed, they would call us a community, though these agglomerations are both more and less than that. There is none of the sense of shared hardship that defines a real community. I suppose I should admit at this stage that what drew the members together in the first place was a fondness for the Grateful Dead which some people might find unreasonable: the friend who drew me in has over 400 tapes, or 200 for each cat. But I can't say it's a shared hardship no longer to be able to go to shows. It certainly doesn't dominate conversation. On the other hand, one defining characteristic of communities, as of families, is that the members don't like each other - friends are God's apology for relatives. And as far as I can tell the members of this email ring do like each other. They are friends. This is much more valuable.

I suppose I have been online now for about ten years, and in that time seen four or five real friendships coalesce. It doesn't happen any more easily here than in the physical world: all the usual obstacles to friendship apply and - as my friend Andrew Leonard once said - " a fundamental law of cyberspace is that it's easier to be an asshole there than ever before in history". Looking back on things, I see that the ones which were founded on supposed mutual hardship were in fact dependant on shared grievances against the world, and have failed. Only those based on a solid and growing base of mutual admiration and esteem have prospered.

In a world where most people only ever meet workmates, so that the social horizon of a modern executive is nearly as limited as that of a mediaeval peasant though in exciting modern ways, the computer screen provides a potentially infinite extension of the space where we can show off seriously. In one sense they are restoring the art of letter writing, but some of what goes on is a great deal more like conversation in the days when this was a recognised competitive sport, like dancing. Of course it's artificial; but no more so than the ritualised boorishness of people who talk about football. And the really astonishing thing, in my profession, is how much easier it makes it for readers to respond: every time I write for Salon, the excellent Internet magazine, I get letters that reassure me that real people really care about the subject.

Writers, who can go for three or four days at a time without talking to people in meatspace, are particularly attracted to this form of friendship; also, I think because it allows even the most hamfisted factualist to try their hand at make believe. A clearly fictional character purporting to be the ex-wife of a celebrated singer has been sending me helpful notes on how to combat manic depression. It's all too much. I shall stop now and go off to judge the Preacher of the year competition, which should clear my mind of any remaining facts.

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