A Virtual Hug: As Touching as a Physical One

Virtual HugSome of you may know that my grandfather is quite ill and has been in the ICU for the past few weeks. I’ve been spending a lot of time focusing on family and in the hospital. A number of friends online have helped me be strong. One in particular, Miguel Lopez, shared this story (below) with me about how online relationships have helped him cope with the illness of his mother.

It started with a headache.

My mother, like most senior citizens, has more than a fair share of health problems. But a few weeks ago, they turned worse. She started complaining of severe headaches, then dizziness, then vertigo. Worried, we called 911 and soon she was in the ER, being subject to all kinds of tests.

I’m sure most of you have been in a hospital waiting room. In most circumstances there is not much you can do to try to keep your mind away from the uneasy feeling creeping out of your gut. You call your immediate family or close friends, watch the TV, read a magazine.

In my particular case, there was something else. For some time now I have been using a social website called Twitter. Like most social sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), it allows members to keep track of friends and contacts, and in the case of Twitter, this is done by exchanging very short text messages that all the members in you circle of friends can see and respond to. I’m using the term “friends” a little loosely here, because for the most part these are people I have only met online. More on that later.

I have made a habit, whenever I’m just idle, to use Twitter to post a short, maybe little snarky remark about what I’m doing, like watching a real good movie while having real bad popcorn. Usually then someone replies with another equally entertaining (or not) message, and sometimes a big thread of messages organically forms around the most mundane topics.

This particular night, waiting in the ER, I grabbed my phone and went online on it to try to get some distraction. While checking my e-mail and reading the news, it felt natural to post a short notice on Twitter about what was happening to me and my family.

During the following hours, replies started to appear on my Twitter page. Mostly, questions about how she was feeling, and good wishes in all forms.¬†At first I didn’t think much of it. After all, if you are in most social situations, online or not, where a fellow human being is having a difficult time, most people will express sympathy, sincere or polite. You may say it is no different than signing a greeting card for the coworker who had a car accident, or giving a dollar to the homeless guy in the street.

However, most of the messages I got that night didn’t had the feel of the automatic “I’m sorry” that you may get when a stranger tries to comfort you. There were genuine expressions of solidarity. They came from people all over the country, who I only knew by their “user name” or online alias, and from people I had never seen except for their online photos. But the fact that I had never shaken hands with them in real life did not diminish the effect of their messages. The virtual [[hugs]] wasn’t less comforting than the real article.

By coincidence, a few days before, one of my online friends had lost her grandfather. And another one had her own grandfather very ill in the hospital. In both of those cases, I felt real sadness for them. While sending them messages trying to comfort them, I feared that those electronic notes maybe would not have a real effect. But that night, and the several subsequent nights while my mother was kept in the hospital, as I kept posting updates on Twitter and other social sites and receiving replies, I realized that a few kind words, multiplied by the connective power of the internet, can amount to a LOT.

I assure you, these online contacts were acting like any real life friend would have, and the positive outcome on my moral felt very real. When my mother’s medical tests showed no real serious health problems and she was sent back home, the messages of congratulations and joy posted on Twitter were really welcomed.

These days, you will find all over the media expressions of concern about how the increased use of social sites, IM, email and other new ways to contact people may have an adverse effect on humankind, how we are going away from interacting with people face-to-face and moving toward a society where will be commonplace to socialize without ever meeting anyone in the flesh.

I say: don’t worry too much about that. As long as we can carry over to the web world the same qualities of kindness and solidarity that we had demonstrated in many other situations, humankind will be fine.

That said, it doesn’t mean that I would not like someday to meet some of my online friends in real life, if only so we can watch a good movie while eating bad popcorn and then post a snarky comment about it online.

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