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Friends on the Web

The Eskimos have 40 words for snow. (Note: I know that's a linguistic folk tale. And I know they no longer like to be called Eskimos. But if you keep raising objections at the rate of one every 3.5 words, we'll never get anywhere.) And we don't even have one word for our pals on the Web.

I've made more friends in the past five years on the Web then in 15 years in the real world. But they're not quite friends. I don't know them well enough, and our relationship is rather confined by venue and topic. But they're not quite acquaintances either, for some of them I have exchanged volumes of e-mail on topics we care about passionately. They're not buddies because we don't get drunk and talk about the size of women's breasts the way buddies are supposed to. Who are these folks?

For example, I'm a member of a mailing list on which I'm the least technical. It's an invitation-only list sponsored by the editor of a ’zine about the sorts of advances in technology that old-line Unix hackers and new-line Net architects care about. (How'd I get on? I wish I knew.) For a couple of years, lurking much more than I speak, I've eavesdropped on their messages. These folks will exchange 15 e-mails about some telecommunications protocol nit, arguing, correcting, informing at great length, all with great wit, which I can recognize if only occasionally actually get. I've come to know some of the more vocal members pretty well, I think, although because I keep quiet they don't know me nearly as well. Yet, it would be entirely appropriate for me to write them a private message, and were we to meet at a conference, they'd probably recognize my name on my name tag, especially if I were to see their puzzled look and were to give them the name of the mailing list.

Another example: There's a guy in Holland who responds to stuff I've written maybe every six months, usually disagreeing. He's very smart and, from my point of view, very wrong. But he doesn't write me a letter to the editor confined to the issue at hand. No, he writes funny messages that incidentally reveal bits of his biography, wrapping his disagreement over content in a message that assumes I am a real person interested in more than whatever our current topic might be. The exchange has on occasion veered completely away from its initial subject and into personal discussion. This is very much a person-to-person correspondence, and I always look forward to it. Best of all, I pick this example precisely because it is so typical. It's not a just-the-facts-ma'am world any more.

Is he my friend? Not in any usual sense. Acquaintance? No, more than that. Colleague? We don't work together. Comrade? We don't agree about much.

This isn't just a terminological impasse. Most of my intellectual "work" and stimulation comes through conversations with these folks. Increasingly, talking with them is how I think. The information I care about comes embodied in these conversations. That I don't know what to call my conversants also means that I don't know what to call "knowledge," that stuff that used to sit in airtight cans but now is an intimate act among friends who may never have met.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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