Virtual BFFs

Staring at a roomful of strangers, how could you tell who liked the same things as you or had a similar personality?
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I have never met some of my best friends.

In recent years, less and less people I say this to find it weird. But 10 years ago when I was a shy high schooler discovering the wonders of online gaming, it was a lot stranger to say that I counted people living on another continent among my closest friends. My real life friends and family didn't understand how you could develop a deep, meaningful connection without looking someone in the eye, shaking hands, hugging, sharing a meal.

I, on the other hand, didn't understand how people related in real life. Staring at a roomful of strangers, how could you tell who liked the same things as you or had a similar personality? You could try to guess based on their looks, but when I raved to goth kids at school about a heavy metal band from Finland I received blank stares, and while I did geek out with the nerds about the newest Lord of the Rings movie, none of them had read the books first.

Online, it was easy to find people who understood me. I had stumbled across a simple text-based role-play site with no graphics, which meant it consisted of several hundred people writing stories together on a Yahoo group (anyone else remember those?). Players listed their interests in their profiles. Most of them listened to similar music to me -- obscure gypsy punk and Nordic metal opera bands.

And everyone liked to write. I had never met other serious writers before. The kids in school raised their eyebrows when I retreated to a corner to scribble frantically in a notebook. In the game, though, writing was more than a solitary exercise, more than telling a story. When you write a role-play, you're also acting. Assuming the role of your character, viewing life through the eyes of your creation.

I could be anyone I wanted to be, so I chose to write a confident, outgoing prankster woman. Pretty much the opposite of the shrinking wallflower I'd become in real life. But my character must have been believable, because other characters were drawn to her. Soon I'd accumulated a whole group of friends who referred to me as their "mama bird," the one they went to for advice and comfort.

We began to talk about our real lives too. I was careful about it (this was before online dating took off, back when the only stories you heard about meeting people from the Internet involved kidnap and murder). I never revealed my address or surname. But unlike on TV, the adults in the game were honest about their age.

I had conversations that would've been surreal in any other situation -- like the couple in their 50s I talked to throughout their separation and reunion, or the 40-something woman I considered a role model, who tragically lost her son a few years into our acquaintance. I met kids younger than me out in the Midwest who were stockpiling every spare penny for college; a guy from China who couldn't access half of our websites because of the Chinese Internet security laws. I talked to a sixty-something West Coast woman battling cancer -- a battle she eventually lost, much to our sorrow. I bonded with a UK player struggling with her identity after she accidentally fell in love with another girl in the game. I met a girl from Malaysia who was studying for her doctorate in the Ukraine. I'm invited to her wedding next year, which will be the first time we'll meet in person.

I dated a boy living in Glasgow; then fell head over heels for a British guy in Newcastle, who I very nearly married years later. I took a road trip to an older couple's campsite in Missouri to party with 30 of our game friends from all corners of the globe (including an Icelandic guy who professionally reenacted Viking battles).

Every time I've met one of those online friends (close to a hundred by now), they've been exactly how I'd imagined them.

Computer screens can let you remain anonymous, yes. There are creeps online, just as there are creeps hiding in plain sight in the real world too. But much in the same way that the divider in a confessional allows you to open up, or masquerade balls give you the confidence to dance with the person you'd be afraid to ask otherwise, the anonymity of the Internet was freeing for shy high school me.

10 years ago, I invented an outgoing, life-of-the-party character through whom I lived vicariously. Today, living in New York City with a huge network of friends (both here and around the globe), I have become that character.

The shy wallflower inside still rears her head when I show up alone at a party or attend an awkward networking event. But if the Internet has taught me anything, it's that if you inhabit a character long enough you will become it. Write who you want to be, embody that person, and you'll find true friends, both online and off.

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