When I was four years old, my best friend Malia lived two blocks away; I rode my bike to her house, and we sped off to explore our neighborhood. In high school, all of my friends lived within a fifteen-mile radius; we coordinated hangouts over the phone, we sent beeper messages to one another, we took a quick Samtrans bus ride to meet at Hillsdale Mall, or we borrowed a parent’s car to crash a party in Belmont or Burlingame. ‘Twas the bubble of a teenager on the San Francisco Peninsula. And in college in Los Angeles, I lived in even closer proximity to my friends: In the same dorm. In the same hall that reeked of SoCal weed and Coors Light. In the same party house, directly across the street from a combined KFC/Taco Bell.
It never crossed my mind that I’d not physically be able to see my friends whenever I wanted. Ten years later, my best friends are scattered across the country and the world.
Geography is my nemesis.
I think about how I grew close to one of my dearest friends, Lisa. She moved into the room next door on the third floor of McKay Hall, a dorm on the Loyola Marymount University campus in August 1997. I really didn’t like her when we first met, and I wonder if being neighbors—and having no choice but to run into her dozens of times a day—made it easier for our friendship to blossom. Because by the end of college, most of my best friends had lived in McKay, on our floor, that freshman year.
And I wonder: if I chose to live in the girls-only dorm across campus, would I have different friends today?
* * *
When I was younger, I gravitated to social circles physically near me—within the sphere with which I was familiar: the neighborhood girls on the other side of the block, the kids in my row in kindergarten, the classmates in my middle school homeroom.
As a child, or even a seventeen-year-old, my passions weren’t ripe—I wasn’t inspired to look beyond my stomping ground for friendship. And I’m not saying I simply played with Malia because she lived two blocks away; we got along delightfully. And I’m not saying I would never have become friends with Lisa if we hadn’t shared a common wall.
But proximity made it possible—and much easier to play.
* * *
Some commenters to part II, Facebook, Twitter and the Seeds of Compartmentalization, describe Facebook as a dusty Rolodex of those they know by default, and not by choice: elementary school classmates, people they can’t get rid of (relatives), and randoms they’re connected to for no substantial reason (individuals known through exes, acquaintances met at parties, strays from past jobs). Facebook represents their stagnant past and awkward present (while Twitter has become an outlet for new and future relationships based on mutual, evolving interests).
When you settle geographically in one place, you accumulate friends, some of whom become your best friends. Or your lovers. But you’re also stuck with the people around you; you make the best of what and whom you’ve got. You may not click intellectually with the couple next door, but they’re accessible. They’re easy. They’re there. And boom: They become your weekly dinner guests. They become an integral part of your day-to-day life.
And that’s the thing about physical space: it makes connecting with others easier, which is something I’ve taken for granted. Yet this convenience can also feel limiting. Obvious, perhaps. But it’s something I’ve thought about as I’ve become more invested in various communities online.
* * *
I now live equally in real and virtual space. Many of us do. Not in that I’m obsessed with the Internet and must refresh my Facebook page every two minutes and must have my smart phone on me 24/7 way; rather, I maintain friendships and relationships quite organically, online and off.
In virtual space, I can mingle with and choose whom I want to know based on interests, regardless of where they live in the world. I’m not stuck in the same grade level at school; or forced to share a bunk in the same dorm room; or restricted by walls, by city boundaries, by mileage.
And so both realms, physical and virtual, are appealing: The concrete world where I can meet my father for lunch in South Beach on my day off, and where I can head to a Giants game with my good friend Noel on a warm evening in the bay. A physical space of certainties. And then there’s this boundless digital space, where the thinker, the romantic, and the dreamer in me gets much of its oxygen.
But it’s no longer fair, to either world, to make these distinctions.
There used to be a line separating the two; it’s all hazy now. In the meantime, the virtual in my life continues to grow, while the physical, and how I’d like to “use” the time within it, becomes more precious.
Parts I-IV in this Virtual Life Series:
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part VI: Facebook Status Updates (And What I Could Have Said)
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part IV: On Unplugging & Merging Virtual and Real
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part III: Nomadic Relationships
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part II: Facebook, Twitter, and the Seeds of Compartmentalization
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part I: The Evolution of Friendship