I first became seriously involved with the "online world" sometime in the summer or fall of 1995. I don't remember the exact details of the timeline, but I spent the school year of 1994-1995 in Denmark on an exchange, and when I returned my parents had just set up a connection (dial up! ugh!) and were starting to explore what was out there. I knew about email and the internet before that, of course, but this was my first real exposure to what was available. So I sat down at the computer one sunny afternoon in late 1995 and typed "Andrew Lloyd Webber" into a search engine (I was, and remain, a huge musical theatre geek, and his name was the first thing that came to mind). I stumbled across a discussion forum devoted to his works, which led me to a discussion forum about theatre in general, both of which were populated by many of the same posters.
And a new world dawned.
Hard as it may be for you to believe, I did not fit in in high school (shocking, I know). Bullied, brainy, unattractive (or so I thought at the time), more interested in books and plays than boy bands or makeup, growing up in a small town where I had been labelled many years before as "not one of the cool kids" (and you know how labels stick in a small town), I had a lot of trouble finding my place. Denmark helped, big time, by letting me start over in a way, with people who didn't know me from before and who, gasp, seemed to like me just fine. I grew a lot that year. Coming back to the same small town and the same people from before was backsliding in a lot of ways. And then I found people online who were just like me. People who loved to debate the minute details of musical theatre, who had read all the same books, who didn't care about New Kids on the Block, who, like me, were struggling to find their place, who didn't fit in in their small towns or schools. I never knew there were so many people like me out there.
I formed some friendships in those early days that lasted the better part of ten years (although I am no longer in touch with anyone from those days, as we grew apart and lost touch, I still read one of the forums daily, and it is still going strong although, of course, many of the posters have changed). I had trips to New York City and Toronto, and other places, to see shows, I met some of my favourite actors and performers, I spent hours in chat rooms and on email, trading stories and song lyrics and planning our next get together. I was well liked, I fit in, I was part of a community of friends in a way I had never really been before. I had found "my people."
After I finished university I struggled again to find my place. I had my shiny new BA in English, but I didn't know what I wanted to be now that I was grown up. I was waitressing (not a total loss, in retrospect, as that was where I met Serdic for the first time ... boy, life is funny), half heartedly applying for jobs that sounded interesting, but with no real idea of what direction I wanted to take. Somehow I discovered the actor Colin Firth, developed a massive (although harmless!) crush on him, and got involved with a couple of online communities devoted to discussing him and his work. I even ended up moderating one group for awhile, and devoting a lot of work to keeping it going day to day. It gave me something to focus on, a bright spot in what was at that point a fairly dreary existence (yes, I do realize in the grand scheme of things I had it pretty good, but it's not a period of my life I look back on with great fondness), and there was a lot of laughter and excitement. Again, it led to field trips to meet other members of the list, and even a brief, although thrilling, sighting of the man himself in Toronto one year at the film festival. Things I never would have done or experienced on my own, made possible by these people I would never have met if it weren't for the interwebs.
I went back to school to do my masters, and eventually got too busy to moderate the list anymore, although I still remain a (mostly lurking) member of another list. But one friendship I developed out of those days still survives, and Cupcake remains one of my dearest friends. She talked me through a lot of hard times, a lot of self doubt and questioning, but also has been there in the happy times, always one of the first to send her best wishes and love and I know she's always cheering me on. Someone I've never "met," never even talked to on the phone. And yet she means the world to me.
I'm going to skip over the online long distance relationship that dragged on for two years, because, really, who wants to rehash that? ;-) I will say, however, that that relationship did a lot to prepare me for the relationship I have now, as I learned a lot about myself and what I do and don't want, and what I am and am not willing to compromise on/put up with. Would I have been ready for Serdic and what we're building together if I hadn't had that experience? Probably not. All things happen for a reason, right?
Currently I spend most of my online time with my group of about 30 friends who came together through, of all things, a message board dedicated to The Bachelor (ah, yes, my guilty pleasure reality tv secret is exposed). Within that board there was a thread where we were allowed to blather on about off topic things, and a core group of us developed a friendship. When that board was closed we moved, eventually, to our own private board, and the privacy of the new board (password protected, by invitation only, etc.) allowed us the freedom to talk a lot more openly about our lives. We're all over North America, but every couple of months two or more people from the board meet up for one reason or another ... although I have not met everyone on the board (I've met more than half of them) everyone on the board has met someone else on the board, which really strengthens our sense of community. I check in daily for the hilarity and gossip, but more than that they are usually the first people I turn to for advice, for comfort, to share good news or just a silly story about something that happened at work. We have done virtual baby showers for each other, and when my grandfather died I was showered with cards and gifts from them. We have gone through weddings, break ups, births, deaths, financial struggles, good fortune, and all of the ups and downs of life together. I cannot say enough about the support and love this group has shown me over the past few years, and how they have helped me find my place as a well adjusted, happy, productive member of society.
All this to say that I sat at my desk yesterday and cried tears of joy and thanksgiving for someone I have never met. Someone I do not know very well, but who I know is vitally important to Serdic (which makes her vitally important to me), and who has provided him with a lot of the things my online friends have given me (as detailed ad nauseum in the preceeding paragraphs!). Kiy and her husband have just, after years of waiting, been matched with a little girl, and they will soon be off to China to bring their new daughter home. It still blows my mind sometimes that the internet allows me to meet people all over the world, people I would never have been able to connect with otherwise, and share in their lives, their joys and their sorrows, and have them share in mine. For a girl who grew up believing she was weird, believing she would never really quite fit in, the realization that there are so many people out there "just like" me was a staggering one.
What a world.