Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Changing relationships in a changing world

So much has changed, so fast, in the last 20 or 30 years, that sometimes we can find that approaching situations that would have been unheard of then requires a rethinking of how we do just that.

In the 21st century, for instance, communication has changed beyond recognition if we think back just 30 years.

But it's not just getting accustomed to new technologies – and learning to remember millions of passwords and pin numbers and codes – but also to learning to deal with the impact of new technologies on our relationships and even our work.

For instance, there seems to be a world where people who post on social networking sites – Facebook in particular springs to mind here – plaster private information all over the place and then appear shocked when their employer finds out.

Now the internet can offer a wonderful opportunity to be anonymous and even to explore issues that you might not so easily be able to in the 'real world'; even to pour out problems that you can't talk to anyone about face to face. But it's a little naive to believe that posting stories about how much you drank at the weekend and what a shit your boss is, under a recognisable identity, and not thinking that it just might come back to haunt you.

Then you get the culture of taproom lawyers, all of whom seem to think that they can shrill 'libel!' if you say something that they don't like – without realising that you cannot (in UK law at least) libel someone who is only known in the cyber environment as 'Bugs Bunny's Jockstrap'.

But rather more seriously, there's the question of internet relationships, for which our day-to-day etiquette seems inadequate on occasion.

You could start simply from the question of what constitutes friendship online, when you are mostly unlikely to meet the person technology is allowing you to interact with and often where you don't even know their real name.

However, perhaps one of the most difficult issues that all this raises is how we deal with the death of online friends and acquaintances.

Today, the UK news included a story of how the country's oldest Tweeter, Ivy Bean, had died, aged 104. Ivy had over 56,000 followers and some of the messages there today express the impact her death has had on people who never met her, yet followed her tweets.

But it hit me personally when, almost a fortnight ago, one of the contributors on a forum I hang around on died suddenly. Gem wasn't old: she'd recovered from a serious illness earlier in the year, but then a car accident managed what the illness had not.

It struck me that, were it not for a good friend of hers, there would have been nobody to notify people in the online communities of which she was a valuable part.

The thing that really came home to me, though, was how you mourn such friends. There are no obvious conventions. It's unlikely that most internet friends and acquaintances get invited by relatives to a funeral. Even if that were possible, the internet has meant that our online friends can call home somewhere half away around the globe from where we live.

It was the forum owner who came up with what I ultimately felt was the best way to mark her passing – raise a glass to her: an online wake. I think, from the little I knew her, that she would have approved of that so much more than people feeling miserable.

But I am left with the feeling that we need to be aware of this new, connected world that we live in. Staff at Ivy Bean's care home made sure that her followers knew what had happened. A friend of Gem made sure we at least knew what had happened. Perhaps we all need to consider ensuring that someone will tell our cyber friends when anything happens to us.

Because regardless of the nature of our online relationships, they are relationships, in a rapidly changing world when the very nature of our relationships is changing.


  1. I'm glad you wrote about this and I agree with what you said. I'm still upset about Gem.

  2. Hey Syb,
    I too, am glad you posted regarding Gem. She was a wonderful person. It is difficult to deal with, and yes, I agree, she'd definitely have approved of raising a glass to her and honoring her memory. She'd have hated tears.