Back in 2002 I joined a Birth Club out of curiosity – an online forum specific to a birth date (or, in my case, due date). Last month, my 'Jan 03' boy celebrated his 10th birthday. And that group of women I befriended online over 10 years ago? They're still an essential part of my daily life.
Over 30 of us, scattered across the world, and varying hugely in social economic levels, education, and opinions. We are not a group who would ever have found each other in the 'real world'; and yet I class them as among my closest friends.
We have had just two UK 'meet-ups', but many of us have met individually across the years (and across the continents). Some of us have holidayed together, and I'm in business with one of them!
As our collective 10th birthdays approached, I mulled over the reality of online friendships. They know far more about me than they should (when I started asking what they remembered, it quickly became apparent I share FAR too much... *blush*).
But can any 'cyber' friendship be a genuine one?
So I asked them all what they remembered, and what the group honestly meant to them.
"One of my fave moments was def the post about hairy bits... finding out I wasn't the only one with hairy nipples was a huge relief!" (Anna)
"To Gina Ford, or not to Gina Ford ...?" (Ruth)
But of course, it's not all about the gossipy debates. Even if Liz's voice is in our collective heads when we go shopping and dare to reach for the spread ("Butter all the way, dude!"), the connections run far deeper. Seemingly small insignificant comments can mean so much when said at the right time.
"Lexie was the first person who responded to my first ever post, asking if it was normal to think about lost babies when you have beautiful ones sat on your lap." (Nat)
"Receiving a copy of Hello with Jordan's wedding to Peter Andre was brill – and surprisingly touching."
(L.A.-living lonely Brit Diane)
I'm a full time working mother who lives hundreds of miles from my family. I have no 'traditional' support network; but I can reach for my friends and know they'll be there no matter what time of day it is. Make no mistake – 'cyber' friendships can be every bit as real as the 'real life' kind.
"I seriously don't know what I would have done without you all in the early days. On my own in London, family in Australia and I had a new baby! I could cry or rant with you, and there was no such thing as a stupid question. You literally saved me and I'm not sure you ever realised how much I needed you all." (Debbie)
And when you have chatted and laughed with the same group of friends for so long, it's natural that they become the first place you turn when things go wrong; for some of us, very very wrong.
Talking to them all (I had to ask permission before I could write this y'know) it is very clear how genuinely strong that bond is. The gaps in age, economics and geography are simply meaningless when a computer screen bridges them.
Lou in NZ has had to work her way through not one but two doses of cancer in the last few years, and we've attempted to be her wingwomen every step of the way...
"I've turned to you before almost everyone when the chips have really been down. The first time you sent me a bunch of flowers I was so bowled over. A group of women who had never met me, who mostly lived on the other side of the world, could care enough to send me flowers.
"It was also the first tangible connection I'd had with you; I remember staring in wonder at those flowers, thinking (this sounds mental) "they're real, they all really exist!" Silly huh?
Sometimes I can't quite believe the last 5 years of my life, and I know it would have been very different without you all."
But it's not just Lou who's had it tough. In fact, we're a vaguely pitiful bunch, having been a bit over-struck with tragedy over the years.
Emily's husband lost his own fight with cancer. Nat's husband was arrested and sentenced to three months in jail. Anna's depression. Just too many miscarriages and relationship breakdowns and family tragedies. Plus Jess's astonishing simple ability to manage life as a blind single mum.
But of course there's the flip side to the tragedies. The immeasurable joy of the later pregnancies and births, the marriages, the graduations... we're there for the good stuff too.
Because that's life. And we do it all together. And we drunkenly ramble and snort with laughter and swear loudly and give opinionated advice just like any friends do (my own personal favourite was the A-Z of swears created just for Danni).
And we've come to expect Jo's inability to use punctuation and Diane's inability to spell-check. We know who will be first with the supportive hand-holding, and who with the opinionated soapbox (and I would certainly like to thank them all for their unfailing ability to remind me Every. Single. Year. of the time I forgot my daughter's birthday...).
So is a 'cyber' friendship in essence any different to a 'real life' one? Well, no. Not in its essence. We're no different to any group of girlfriends.
We rant creatively on tasteless news coverage, we discuss politics and environmental issues and the latest world news. We ask (and receive) sound business advice – and also opinions on shoe choice, hair cuts and holiday destinations.
We worry about terrifying weather in far-flung places (and probably show an appalling knowledge of world geography.... "Forest fires in the news! Is that near you Diane?"), and we endlessly share the minutiae of our daily lives.
But in one aspect our friendship falls short – in one single way it is not the amazing thing it could be. When one of us is hurt or in need, no one can reach out and hold them close. When one of us is ill or grieving no one can pop round and make tea, make beds, make dinner. We can't provide emergency babysitting, or whisk each other out for a random night of wine, or take an illicit morning at the cinema. We can't make the small physical differences a geographically close friend will make without thinking. And sometimes, that's hard – sometimes we ache to be able to just DO something.
But on balance – what we have is just as real, just as important. Even without the coffee mornings.
"Thinking about our collective strength; babies birthed, businesses born, bad marriages left behind, good marriages mended, careers found, lost or rebuilt, cancers beaten - all whilst bringing up the next generation." (And singing, Rachel. Never forget the carol singing)
"Someone remembered the little mouse that used to pop up on my top step when I was feeding one of my babies (it used to just stare at me). How the heck do you remember something so unimportant about someone?" (Jo)
We remember because we care, and because you're real. Even if you are as far away on this earth as a human bean could possibly be.
Do you have any special long distance, long term friendships?