Friday, July 8, 2011

My Secret Online Life

Bonnie, Liz, Kay, Hope, Ann, Lois, Kathy and Joe at Lois' home outside DC-June 2011.

I have a secret life- well, not so much secret, rather invisible for my face-to-face friends in daily life. For over 20 years, I have been in daily discussions with a small group of women in a private conference on a free public service- Metanet (  TMN is a marvelous location for great conversations that have waxed and waned over the years, and address both personal and political questions with equal aplomb.  The area I've been so deeply invested in is a women-only private conference in which I have developed deep friendships.

Bonnie, Hope, Kay, Lois, Pam, Stef, Kathy BJ and Marti-Lois's home April 2007- first time face to face for many of us. 

In a way, it’s a very pure way of developing relationships, as it’s asynchronous text conversations that delay physical clues about a person until far into the conversation.  It’s also convenient- I can log in any time of day or night and either read or write --(mostly both) and join in to the rhythm of the conversations as I see fit.  The conference style archives posts in chronological fashion, and the topics (“items”) are initiated at will by participants.  We self-monitor, often reminding each other that it’s best to park comments in the items designed for particular topics, and to create a new topic if  we don’t find just the right place. 

Marti and Kay meet face to face for first time in April 2007.
I’ve learned very powerful lessons from this long time online friendship, the most important being  “Don’t post thoughtlessly.  Keep in mind that what you say will be taken seriously and remembered.”  The next lesson is “Don’t over-react to what’s been said.  Think about the context and try to understand what’s going on.”  I suppose the third would be “Be careful about your level of involvement for time purposes.”  Each of us has  our own rhythm of posting, with many of us going through stretches of time where we simply can’t contribute much because of daily time constraints, but the benefits of our communication draws us back together.  Over time, new people join, and some people slide away, but usually connections made during our time together will result in long-term friendships.

Hope, Stef and bj at the National Cathedral, Washington DC, Spring 2007. 

We cherish the notion that we can bring various personalities and belief systems to the group and be both candid and kind. This isn’t always easy, but there are some commonalities that make it far more convenient.  The first is that we’re all female.  Though that may sound sexist, and probably is, there are some interesting benefits to this all-female company.  One is a willingness to listen to each other without judgment and to offer comforting statements. Another is that spouses tend not to get bent out of shape with the notion of single-sex deep connections. Not that they don’t resent the amount of time spent in our online commitments, but it’s not threatening the way that opposite sex conversations could become.  We’re a caring community, and are remarkably stable.  
Marty (spouse of Lois), Marti, bj, and BJ (spouse of Pam) represent Virginia,  Pennsylvania (now Arizona), California and Massachusetts.  We enjoyed the duplication of names cross gender! 

Geographically, we’re quite diverse - I’m the only regular group member from the west coast, and of the 20 or so active participants, the following areas are represented: Minnesota, Arizona, California, Vermont, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC.  We have two dear friends from the Melbourne, Australia vicinity, and frequent contributors from Illinois, South Carolina and Toronto, Canada.
Bonnie, Stef and Joe enjoy the spring in Virginia, 2007 - on the way to tourist activities in DC! 

How would a group like this develop?  Mostly as an outgrowth of an open conversation, in which we enjoyed full public interaction. There we  found that some folks, usually of the male persuasion, loved verbal aggression and scorned non-logical entries.  Efforts to make peace when feelings were hurt were often debunked in a “love it or leave it” atmosphere.  The private conference allowed many to leave, but yet participate in public conferences where focus on political issues could be debated more aggressively. Creating a private haven for kindred spirits was a great solution. 
Celebrating retirements with Stef in Charlotte, North Carolina, June 2011. 

Metanet is an amazing service.  It’s free and peopled by amazingly sharp people who have organized communication groups that work well, by and large.  Though much of the energy goes into political discussions (most generally of the left wing flavor), there is also room for discussions of spirituality and suffering, both physical and emotional, and for whimsy and poetry.  Much to nourish the human condition. 
Dan, our host for the 4th of July feast in Newfane, Vermont, in his lovely garden. 
Nan, Dan's remarkable partner, who's helped build this lovely home into a magnificently hospitable retreat. It was my first meeting with Nan, and certainly will not be the last. 

For those of us who have participated in these conferences without benefit of face to face meetings, there is great anticipation when we do get to meet.  I have traveled to the Washington DC area many times, and for the last ten years, a significant focus is to have face-to-face time with my online friends. The Metanet server is in Arlington, and is kept running by volunteer saints, most of whom do not participate in the group I’m in, but are related.  Scott Burns, son of Frank Burns, one of the Metanet founders, is a key technical support. Our group’s primary moderator and sponsor is Lisa Kimball, also one of the Metanet founders. 
Bonnie, Pam (Massachusetts) and meeting Anneke (Florida) for the first time
face to face on the 4th of July, 2011 at
Nan 'n Dan's in Vermont.  She's long time best friends with Nan. 
This National Anthem tour, which fulfills Joe’s goal of researching and writing for his sabbatical, is also fulfilling my goals of travel and visiting time with dear friends, both from online connections and other past experiences, but one of the most distinct joys is to meet people for the first time in person that I feel I know very well. 
Our visit to Nan in Vermont led to her wide-eyed utterance after just a few sentences- “I can’t believe you have such accents!”  This was pretty funny, but predictable.  She understood Joe’s Southern syllables- he is a native Mississippian, but was confused by her perception of mine.  As a Californian, there’s not much reason for me to have any Southern twang, except that I did live in the south for three years, and have been surrounded by the softness of Joe’s drawl, which disappears when he’s speaking professionally or singing.  

BJ and Joe- an added bonus- spouses get to enjoy the relationships, too. We're heading for BJ and Pam's home this week, one more comfort experience for me!  
I’m not one bit surprised that social networking is so popular - with mostly just text and a few photos posted here and there, I’ve found a comforting, meaningful community that gives me a way to feel at home nearly everywhere I go.  It’s wonderful to feel so connected. 

Now to plan a get together with Janette and Sarah in Australia-- or get them to come to the US!  We love the online stuff, but face-to-face meetings deeply enrich the connections.