The Sunday Salon: When Internet-only Friends go Quiet

I have several friends I’ve never met face-to-face.  Sometimes one of them will “disappear” for a while.  In some cases, I’m connected to them through a variety of means — their book blog, LibraryThing, or Facebook — and I have other ways to keep in touch.  If they go quiet in one area they may remain active in others.  But sometimes there’s only a single connect point, or a person goes completely quiet.  And then I start wondering if they’re OK.

If a “face-to-face friend” is a little quiet, I just assume they’re having a bad day and don’t think too much about it.  If something more serious is afoot, that usually becomes known in due course.  But Internet-only relationships pose unique etiquette dilemmas.  With a few of these friends, I’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about their well-being.  I’m attuned to their online comings and goings, and am comfortable reaching out to them if the pattern changes.

But that’s not always the case.  For example, take Valerie, a woman who was very active in LibraryThing‘s Virago group in 2009.  In 2010, she suddenly stopped posting.  At Christmas, several of us sent cards saying we missed her.  I gave her my email address, hoping she would get in touch.  Just a couple of weeks ago I heard from her son, who informed me dear Valerie was terminally ill.  While the news was difficult to accept, it was very kind of him to take the time to contact me, and I was able to tell the other Virago group members.

Today I’m worried about my friend Lee, who is part of another group of women friends on LibraryThing.  Lee lives in northern Alabama.  Yes, right in the path of last week’s tornadoes.  Lee moved to Alabama a few years ago to be closer to her daughter and son-in-law, and their now 3-year-old twins.  Sometimes she needs to take a break from the group, and she’s great about letting us know that.  But the tornadoes took everyone by surprise.  There are widespread power outages, so even if all is well she may be unable to get online.  And then, getting online might be the least of her concerns, especially if they have experienced property loss or, god forbid, something worse.  I feel pretty helpless, just waiting and hoping.

I have been fortunate to form so many long-lasting friendships via the Internet.  But these ways of being in community present a whole new set of challenges.  Have you faced these situations before?  How have you dealt with them?

Update May 2:  I heard from my friend Lee; she and her family are safe.  They lost power, but there was no other damage to their home.


Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

17 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: When Internet-only Friends go Quiet

  1. Wow, I am so sorry to hear about your LT friend who is ill. How heartbreaking. =( And I hope you hear from Lee soon. A great post – Internet friends are very special to me too! =)

  2. Laura,
    as usual, you managed to convey the feelings a lot of us share, and you did it so well!
    Thank you, dear.

  3. I have never personally faced this. The only bloggers I know that have gone unexpectedly silent have later come back, sometimes after a few months, sometimes after a year. The only situation I know of was what I believe was the sudden death of Dewey, that Debnance mentioned above. That’s very scary and I’m so sorry to hear about your friend.

    • Amanda, I saw your post today about taking a blogging break this month. You were very smart to share that — now none of us will worry about you!

  4. So sorry to hear about your friend. It is a strange artifact of knowing people online. You can’t call up their neighbor or a mutual friend and say, Do you know what’s going on with Lee? Hope you hear something.

    • Exactly, Robyn. While these relationships have enriched my life, they require whole new ways of interacting. Sometimes you don’t even know other ways to get in touch, and sometimes no matter how much you care, it would just be intrusive or inappropriate.

  5. I have an LT friend who has been chronically ill since I met him on-line. His silences were always extremely disturbing because I was fairly sure they meant trouble. He now has a system of getting the word out if he’s hospitalized and unable to post. His wife e-mails or phones certain on-line friends who then pass the information through his regular internet forums. This is something all of us might want to consider for ourselves….who would be missing US if something happened to prevent us from appearing where we’re regularly “seen”? Of course the extreme situations caused by a natural disaster simply cannot be planned for. Even family members of those affected may not be able to communicate during the immediate aftermath.

    • Linda, your friend has a really good system there. Recently I came across an emergency preparedness recommendation to have a designated contact away from home. In an emergency or natural disaster, you could let that contact know you were OK and they could notify others on your behalf. The idea is that if they are far away they are probably not affected by the same event. A similar principle applies, as you suggest, for our online relationships. Lots of things can take you offline for a while, some more serious than others, and you’ve raised a good point about having a communication plan.

  6. I have wondered the same thing about those living in the tornado regions. And when someone goes “quiet,” it’s natural to be concerned.

    Sorry to hear about your ill online friend!

    Thanks for expressing what many of us feel.


  7. I updated this post and thought I’d leave a comment as well: I heard from my friend Lee; she and her family are safe. They lost power, but there was no other damage to their home.

  8. I have had Internet only friends go quiet too. It is weird that we can form such strong connections to people we’ve never met, but it does happen. I sobbed for a day when someone from an Internet forum I belonged to died and a book blogger I followed stopped posting after becoming terminally ill. I find it difficult to know what to do when someone stops posting. You don’t know if they’ve just got busy/bored or are suffering. Glad to hear your friend Lee is OK, but I think it just shows how important it is to let everyone know what is going on. Internet relationships can be strong and so it is nice when people let you know that they are OK.

    • Jackie, I have the same difficulty knowing what to do when someone stops posting. And it really depends on how well I feel I know the person and if I have an alternative method to contact them. If I’ve followed their blog for a long time, and interacted via comments, and I have an email address or FB contact, then I reach out. But that’s a lot of ifs … agree that whenever possible we should try to let our online friends know about taking breaks and so forth.

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