**UPDATE** This story was selected as an Editor’s Pick over at Medium.com
(‘Virtual Friend’ from the poetry collection “I Am Not These Things”)
Some say it’s impersonal
But it doesn’t feel impersonal when someone says something nasty
And some of my best friends are in there
We share comfort while we share posts
Trade links instead of books
Touch base every day
From one website to the next
Different usernames, same us
We fight injustice
Those things we read in the comments
Were so awful, amirite?
Never read the comments
You should never read the comments
We always read the comments
Gosh I like you
We could meet up today
But it’s so warm here
And the world is enormous outside
And much safer squeezed into my laptop
Where it can’t get out
You seem down today
Can I ((hug)) your emoticon?
You need cats
Or a nice manatee
Making (and keeping) friendships was always difficult for me as a child. And because of those early disasters, it took me a long time as an adult to really trust myself in social situations. What few friends I had in childhood and into my teen years, I mostly lost touch with once we went off to university and started our separate careers.
Making friends with co-workers was too complicated. Truthfully, I felt uncomfortable trying to mix social interactions with business because I found it difficult to know where to set boundaries, and to respect the boundaries of others. I’ve always been an all-or-nothing kind of person when it comes to social interaction: If I’m going to share, I’m going to overshare, and this is not the sort of thing that goes over well in a work situation. So aloof was easier, when I could manage it.
Somewhere around 2007, when I finally relented and joined Facebook (being in my mid-30s, Facebook seemed like a game for kids, and I honestly didn’t think it would hold any appeal), I was surprised by what a good fit it was for me. Not only did I end up rekindling old friendships, but I even ended up making new friends out of old acquaintances. And by that I mean — people who in our previous existence didn’t seem to have any interest in interacting with me now seemed to genuinely be interested in what I had to say.
Facebook is often criticized as being a place for superficial friendships. For some people like myself though, social networking has proven to be a boon to my self-esteem and social health. There are certain hallmarks of having Asperger’s that make it difficult to connect by traditional means. Which is not to say I haven’t learned (finally) in my 40s that most adults are actually much more open to those who are neuroatypical than children are. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve done a much better job in the last several years of aligning myself with others who share my perspective and are a motley crew of oddballs themselves (being part of the queer, poly, atheist and feminist communities helps: counterculture has at least one privilege: acceptance of the non-normative).
Here are my top six reasons why Facebook works for me as an autistic:
1. Interacting Without Confrontation: No eye contact! Ever! Plus I can post about things I care about and even talk about them ad nauseam, and people don’t have to reply if they’re not interested. I don’t end up annoying people with my tendency to be self-centered or one-sided in my conversation style. I can’t interrupt anyone. Ultimately they don’t have to feign interest, and I don’t have to feel shitty when I realize I’m boring people.
2. Oversharing is the New Normal: I am no longer the elephant in the room. When everyone else is sharing pictures of their kids, cats, dinner and discussing the minutiae of their day, my tendency to blurt out personal information fits right in.
3. Facebook Friendships Have Lower Expectations: Comment on someone’s posts once a week, Like the occasional picture, and people are often satisfied. It’s rare that anyone gets in a huff over the fact that I’m a pretty neglectful friend who tends to be a bit limited in my ability to interact IRL. If they don’t find our interactions fulfilling, they de-friend me and I don’t really take it personally.
4. I Don’t Lose Real Life Friendships: As per above, I can be a pretty shitty friend. I have a rather unexplainable aversion to the telephone, I don’t keep in touch via e-mail, and making regular plans tends to slip my mind. But I can follow people’s lives on Facebook, say complimentary things about their children, and share interesting tidbits from the web that I think will make them smile.
5. People Get to Know the Real Me: It was illuminating to find out from people I’d known from high school that the reason we weren’t friends wasn’t because they didn’t like me, but rather because they thought I was shy/aloof/quiet/unapproachable/boring or any number of other things. After befriending people on Facebook and interacting I would get comments like “Wow! I never knew how smart/funny/clever/witty you are!” I don’t feel like I’m a different person, but it’s no doubt that the internet has let me operate from my default comfort zone: words on paper (er… screen).
6. Emoticons: I feel like emoticons were invented for people with Asperger’s. Gone are the days of having to interpret the emotional intent of others. The internet is a level playing field and I’m no longer the only one who struggles for context. But more importantly, the risk of people misinterpreting what I say is greatly reduced. I tend to be very pragmatic in my delivery (which can occasionally make me seem very cold) and I also have a very sardonic sense of humour. Pop a smiley face on that sucker and we’re golden!
What I find most surprising about my experience with Facebook is actually how normal it has made me feel. I am not sure if it is just Facebook or the advance of social media as a whole: They have given voice to not just the misfits, but the misfit in everyone. Because of how open people have become with their lives and struggles on social platforms, there is no longer one single ideal of what normal is.
Facebook and social media are tearing down walls and challenging expectations. Gone are the cliques. Gone are the wallflowers. I’m not the elephant in the room; we’re all elephants.