Saturday, March 10, 2007

The People in Your Cyberhood

The People in Your Cyberhood
Andria Brown

It’s always a little awkward to admit having met someone online. There’s still a little bit of a stigma, the assumption that the parties involved had such a deep social delay that the only way they could come together was through the safe, flaw-hiding, digitized middle ground.

Even more awkward, then, to admit that pretty much one’s entire social circle stems from an online source, but I’ve slowly come to realize that I owe most of my daily interaction with other parents to the mighty Internet. In fact, I wouldn’t be on this page today if it weren’t for the HipMama message boards.

I met Fertile Ground’s own Stacey (or staleyg, as she was better known to me) while I was pregnant with Miss M. I’d been a fairly active message boarder before then, since I was telecommuting from a home office 600 miles away from my nearest three-dimensional co-worker. So when I got pregnant, I sought an online community that would cater to my personal parenting leanings. The board went through changes and the community wandered from one site to the next, but I kept tabs on staleyg and after nearly a year of virtual communication, we discovered that we lived less than 2 miles away from each other. A chaotic but enjoyable smoothie date between Pregnant Mom and Toddler Mom ensued, and pretty soon we were in regular contact, both in person and online.

One day I got an email from Stacey saying, “Hey, have you seen this store Mothersville? It’s really cool, you should check it out.” And since Stacey was my guide to all things cool in Memphis, I of course went right away. I discovered not only a store, but a community resource offering pre-natal yoga, childbirth classes and a full schedule of groups for new mamas. I immediately signed up for everything, and after slinking in six or eight times, I finally got the nerve to start talking to the owner, Kristy. And talking. And talking. And talking.

Looking back at the end of my pregnancy and my first year of motherhood, my most distinct memories are of sitting on the couch at Mothersville, among Kristy, Stacey and a revolving group of other new moms, talking, joking, advising and dishing about our lives. But even in real life, the virtual was still a factor. Most of the moms had found Mothersville through online research on slings, cloth diapers, or attachment parenting. We set up an outside playgroup and, naturally, emailed each other the meet-up details each week. The Internet was our lifeline in the often isolating world of new parenthood.

As time went on and children grew, trying to coordinate our social lives got even more complex. We outgrew playgroups or our maternity leaves ran out and our regular contact got less and less frequent. Since I was working 2-3 jobs, including the new ownership of Mothersville, I no longer had the free time to devote to the constantly active nature of message boards, and as each month passed, I was drifting even further out of touch with the women who had been my companions on the maternity journey.

And then, like a pixelated miracle dropped from the cyber-sky, my salvation arrived in the form of a blog. Fertile Ground Zine: The Blog, to be precise. Suddenly I had a way to keep up with the almost-daily doings of at least one other mom (guess who?), and thanks to the magic of blog comments, it was even interactive. Maybe I didn’t have the time to send regular emails, but it wasn’t so hard to read a funny post and then blurt back a couple sentences in reply. In fact, reading the comments from other people was half the fun of the blog itself. It’s like Stacey was telling a story and the rest of us were sitting around the table, goofing around and interrupting (like she loves!) and sometimes even agreeing with her. When Stacey expanded her bloggertoire to include Dining with Monkeys, and then opened it up to guest bloggers, the community interaction was even stronger. More local parents joined the blogosphere on their own and we formed a curious little pack: grown folks who rarely actually saw each other but still kept tabs on the regular goings-on of everyone else.

I didn’t realize how much this phenomenon had affected our social scene until we were at a birthday party at Kristy and Richard’s house (Sassy Molassy and RJA of Urf!, respectively) and Stacey mentioned that, despite standard birthday party conventions that usually just drag mothers to such events, Warren felt comfortable coming because “he felt like he knew everyone through the blog comments.” The feeling was collective as we all sat on the porch and drank beers and joked with each other as if we’d just been talking the day before, even though it may have been a few weeks since we were all in one (actual) spot.

Of course, those multi-week spans very rarely occur anymore, because there’s generally a Dining with Monkeys convergence to attend or an impromptu park date set up thanks to the wonder of cell phone text messaging. We used technology to come together, and now we use it on daily basis to create our own virtual neighborhood. We can’t walk out our front doors and holler hi at each other like our own mothers and their friends, but we’ve still found a way to connect our high-speed lives.

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