Internet friendships

(This post is dedicated to Patreon backer David Lamb, who wanted to hear my thoughts about Internet friendships. At various Patreon tiers, you can commission blog posts, too!)

A perennial pet peeve of mine is when people dismiss Internet friendships as being “not real,” or not a proper way to have friends, in comparison to face-to-face friendships.

Internet friendships are a bit different from friendships in person, though. In my experience, it’s easier to do some things online, and easier to do some things in person.

Some things it’s easier to do in person:

  • Physically hug and enjoy the contact
  • Watch a person’s face and body language in real time
  • Share event-based experiences, like going to a concert or meal together
  • Help each other with physical tasks

And some things it’s easier to do online:

  • Find friends based on a rare or specialized interest
  • Lean on a forum or chat group for support and let whoever has spoons at the time interact with you, rather than bugging a lot of people individually
  • Bond over certain kinds of interest-based activities, such as making fanfiction/fanart, or deep essay-style analysis of a topic you both enjoy

There are also things that depend on the person. Some people find it easier to express deep feelings by writing, while others find it easier to express themselves aloud. For people like me who are more articulate with written speech, it’s easier to do that online. Other people’s mileage may vary. (This isn’t “neurotypical vs non-neurotypicals,” by the way; some non-neurotypicals have more trouble with writing than speaking. They’re valid.)

Often when people criticize social media for being shallow or causing low self-esteem, they’re not talking about the whole Internet. Instead, when you really delve into their argument, it seems that they’re talking about a very specific subset of the Internet.

For example, think of a place like Instagram, which:

  • Encourages people to post shiny pictures
  • Measures attention mostly in “likes” without a lot of in depth interaction
  • Makes it easy to find people with shinier pictures than you
  • Is mostly sorted by what’s most popular or controversial at a given time
  • Makes it easy to count your number of “likes,” compare it to the very popular stuff showing up on your feed, and feel inadequate
  • Makes it hard to share personal things in a safe/private way

And compare to a place like Dreamwidth, which:

  • Lets people write about themselves, their experiences, or their favorite topic in as much depth as they want
  • Lets people comment and converse in as much depth as they want
  • Doesn’t try to rank, classify, or compare its users
  • Gives users full control over privacy, access, and what shows up on their feed

Obviously these are not the only two ways to do things online, and they are also not black and white. Some people have good experiences with Instagram and some people have bad experiences with Dreamwidth. But it should be plain that many of the criticisms of “social media” are actually criticisms of the most common uses of a small handful of the most popular platforms, and they don’t encompass every online way of relating. Some platforms meet the need for meaningful connection better than others.

My own experience with online friendships have included many positive and meaningful things:

  • Connections with friends who shared interests with me and were weird in the same ways I was
  • Connections with fellow writers who understand and share the difficulties of a writing career
  • Connections with fellow autistic people which have taught me a huge amount about myself
  • Opportunities to share critiques and work on the craft of writing, including the skill of writing inclusively and sensitively, with people whose lives are very different from mine
  • Opportunities to network and build an audience as a writer in meaningful ways with people who are often very geographically distant from me

I have also experienced negative things online. People can be abusive online and non-abusive people can get into petty fights online just as easily as in real life. However, all these positive things I’ve experienced are real and have been easier for me to find online than in person – which doesn’t mean I don’t treasure them when I also find them in person.

Simply clicking “like” on someone’s post is not a very deep interaction, but sometimes it’s okay for interactions not to be deep.

  • People have shallow face-to-face interactions all the time
  • Like by nodding to each other when they pass in the street
  • Or by exchanging a perfunctory “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.”
  • These parts of human interaction are not worthless; they are rituals we have for a reason.
  • What does become a problem is when we have way more of these shallow interactions than the amount we want or need, and not enough deep or meaningful interactions.
  • Places on the Internet that strongly emphasize shallow interactions can make it easy for this problem to happen.

When people have needs that their online interactions are not meeting, and when there’s a good chance they could meet those needs in the face-to-face world, it can be good to encourage them to put their screens down and interact face-to-face more.

But doing it by shaming people, or by invalidating their online friendships, is a bad idea:

  • It hurts people who have less access to face-to-face friendships due to structural inequality (queer people in a small conservative town, for example, or housebound disabled people) and are doing the best they can with the tools available
  • It hurts people who have found validation and support in online spaces that they were unable to find in person for whatever other reason
  • It hurts people who have an easier time writing than speaking and who are inherently more able to be “real,” in the sense of fully expressing themselves, online
  • It removes support for people who have gone through a difficult online experience, like losing a close online friend, and are struggling with real feelings of grief.

Dismissing online social interactions as “not real” also helps enable some very specific bad behaviors:

  • Internet trolls often feel more emboldened to harass people online than in real life, because online interactions don’t “feel” real to them; but the people at the other end of the interaction are still real people who can be hurt by what they do
  • Harassment and bullying have always been around, but social media allows these things to occur in novel ways
  • For example, harassers on social media can start pile-ons in which thousands of people around the world join in the harassment
  • Preventing & dealing with online harassment is a difficult problem that requires deep thought about our social media platforms, who uses them for what purpose, and why
  • It also requires careful thinking about some thorny philosophical issues (for example: what’s the difference between a harassment campaign and a call-out?)
  • No one who believes that the Internet is inherently fake and silly is going to do this careful thinking.

The people who do bad things, or are affected by bad things online, are real. And the same goes for people who treat each other well online.

Online and face-to-face interaction are different in some important ways; but we do better by each other when we take them both seriously, and this includes the idea that online friendships are valid and real.

Philip K. Dick Award

THE OUTSIDE is a nominee for the 2020 Philip K. Dick Award!

Chosen by a panel of five judges and sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Philip K. Dick Award is given to distinguished science fiction published in paperback form in the US. The winner, along with any special citations, will be announced on April 10, 2019 at Norwescon.

I am so thrilled and flattered for THE OUTSIDE to have been recognized in this manner. Thank you, PSFS and congratulations to the other nominees!

Who Do You Think You Are

Meanwhile, I’m ringing in the new year by having a new poem up in Uncanny Magazine.

This is one of those pieces that I have trouble describing except by just making an incoherent noise and pointing to the words in the piece itself. I suppose it’s about identity and myth. It’s short and free to read, though, so you might enjoy trying to interpret it for yourself. 🙂

2019 In Review / Award Eligibility

I started 2019 in a state of severe autistic burnout. After a 2018 in which I sold my debut novel, finished my PhD, started a new job, and moved across the province and in with a partner for the first time, I was just completely out of every kind of energy. Over the last month or two of 2018, I had made some adjustments to my living situation and a tentative recovery plan, but I was still so overwhelmed by life generally that I couldn’t even handle household noises or watch television. That made for a very precarious start to the year.

I’m happy to say I’m doing a lot better now. There wasn’t a clearly defined end to the burnout so much as a gradual readjustment. I still struggle on and off with my energy levels and with sensory overload but, let’s be real, I’m autistic, I’ve always struggled with that and always will.

Some of the thing that helped me recover include:

  • Demanding my own space in my house. I’m a sensory avoidant morning person living with sensory seeking night owls! I love them but it’s tough. Having my own room where I can work and sleep and be quiet is a godsend. Having my own room also improved the quality of my sleep, which immediately improved a half dozen mental symptoms that I didn’t even know were sleep-related.
  • Shamelessly indulging in special interests. At the beginning of the year I did a series of Star Wars livetweets and they were literally the only thing in my life I felt happy about. I feel happy about more things now but I’ve continued to make space for the things that bring me joy and keep me going (including but not limited to Star Wars). I’ve tried to banish any thought of needing to “earn” them, any more than I earn my meals or sleep.
  • Getting better at using accommodations. There is something in me that doesn’t WANT to use noise-canceling headphones, or stim with stress balls, or do any of the dozen other little things that help relieve sensory stress. Why not? I don’t know. Internalized ableism or whatever. But when I work on quieting that voice, my life gets better.
  • Keeping my schedule simple and flexible.
  • Delegating! There are some things that I’m not so good at handling but that my partner can do, like going to the store. There are some things that are no sweat for me, like putting away dishes and folding laundry, but that my partner hates to do. We’re a team! And now I hardly ever have to go to the store anymore.
  • Making time for face-to-face social events, but on my own terms. Isolating myself makes everything worse, but socializing is very costly in time and energy. Some events are worth it because of the joy that they bring. I focus on those and let myself pare the rest down.
  • Above all, being patient with myself.

Publishing and academia are both a bit slow, so 2019 was the year when my novel came out and when I got to go to my PhD graduation ceremony – even though almost all of the work for those things had been done in 2018. Sometimes that felt strange and I wondered if I was actually doing anything useful in the current year. Apparently this is a normal author brainweasel, though.

MY DEBUT NOVEL! In case you missed it! Is THE OUTSIDE! It is an autistic space opera with cosmic horrors, AI Gods, and cyborg angels! It is eligible for 2019 awards, in case you are reading the year in review for that purpose. This includes the Aurora Award (because I’m Canadian) and awards to do with queer SFF (the protagonist is a lesbian whose girlfriend doesn’t die; other characters are queer and genderfluid; I am also queer and genderfluid, hi).

Meanwhile, here are the other things I published in 2019:

Short Fiction

  • Fairest of All,” a novelette in The Future Fire, is the only short prose fiction I published this year. It’s a dark fairy tale with a happy ending; it plays with changeling folklore and its attendant disability and abuse themes, as well as being queer and polyamorous as heck. This was hard to write and hard to find a home for, and it’s not for everyone, but I’ve had autistic readers tell me it’s their favorite of all the things I’ve ever written. It also has a Locus recommendation, yay!

Poetry

  • Culvert Kelpie” was published in The Temz Review, a Canadian online literary magazine. This is the most structurally ambitious / experimental poem I’ve ever written; it actually appeared to me in my head during a meltdown, which makes it stealth autism literature as well.
  • Nightmare II,” a poem involving lava and frightened awakenings (and the brief, reassuring appearance of a kitty!), was published in Kaleidotrope.
  • Thule” (tricksters and northern exploration), “Looking Down” (a case of survivor guilt / sad news overload), “The Evil Eye” (domestic abuse and magical folklore), and “The Bright Wind” (elemental forces and romantic longing) went up as seasonal Patreon rewards, and are now free to read.

All six of these poems are eligible for speculative poetry awards, including the Aurora (which has a Best Poem/Song category) and the Rhysling.

Non-Fiction and Fan Writing

I wrote several essays and articles online as promotion for THE OUTSIDE, including:

  • Theology in AI Fiction,” an essay for the Uncanny blog, about the way we use AI and aliens in science fiction to explore much older theological tropes that ask questions about morality and human nature.
  • My Muse is a Sorcerer,” a post up here on my own blog, about how THE OUTSIDE was inspired by a villain character from an RPG, and how the world and story of the book evolved around him. (There’s been so much discourse online this year about whether and in what ways it’s okay to have crushes on fictional villains! The post doesn’t go into that side of things, but I am staunchly on Team Go Ahead And Have Crushes On Whoever You Want To, for the record.)
  • Towards a Neurodiverse Future: Writing an Autistic Heroine,” an essay for Tor.com, about why I was scared to give THE OUTSIDE an autistic protagonist, and how Dr. Yasira Shien (and her shady former teacher, Dr. Evianna Talirr) shaped themselves into the wonderful autistic characters they are despite me.

Meanwhile, if you want all my Star Wars opinions:

  • Disability In Star Wars” is one of my most popular blog posts! This is where you can read what I think about Darth Vader (problematic fave), limb loss, disfigurement, mental health, whatever the heck was going on in Rogue One, and the strangely consistent ways that the Skywalker Saga uses different forms of disability to denote different moral and spiritual states.
  • And the aforementioned Star Wars livetweets are here, by episode: [1] [2] [3] [Rogue One] [4] [5] [6] [Solo] [7] [8]. A Rise of Skywalker livetweet will have to wait until it’s out on Disney+, of course.

And the books I reviewed for Autistic Book Party:

Along with Short Story Smorgasbords in June, July, and September.

I’m eligible for Best Fan Writer, although to be honest I think many other authors have done more and better fan writing.

I didn’t read as much in 2019 as I wanted to, but if you want to know my favorite stories of the year by other people, you can look back at my Cool Story, Bro posts: from January-April, May-June, July-August, and September-October.

Meanwhile, here are my top ten tweets of 2019.

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In between all the writing and recovery work, this year, I also taught three university courses and dealt with a household situation that continued to change. In particular, my primary partner lost his job, took another more precarious one, then had his own burnout in the early fall. He’s no longer able to work full-time. Due to the nature of his disabilities we always knew this would happen eventually, but it’s still startling when it does happen. I’m now the primary breadwinner in my house; what my adjuncting and writing income doesn’t cover is being supplemented by Ontario’s social safety net and by some contributions from my family.

There were a lot of times when I got distracted by drama or bad feelings, fell behind on the things that I felt I was supposed to be doing, and felt generally that this year was getting away from me. But honestly, looking back, it didn’t really. I did what I needed to do to take care of myself. I did my paying work, and I’m progressing with the sequel to THE OUTSIDE at a rate my agent is happy with. Sometimes this is what moving forward looks like, even if it feels like keeping barely afloat.

2020 looks like it’s shaping up to be another big, difficult year. I hope it’s a year we take care of each other. I hope it’s a year when we’re able to create the kinds of beautiful things we need most.