By Ariel Edwards-Levy, 15, North Hollywood HS
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Ariel (left) was happy to meet her friend Kim after communicating with her online for several months.
Photo by Suzanne Roth (Ariel's mom)

When I joined a forum for a virtual pet Web site called Neopets almost two years ago, I never could have guessed what it would lead to. A forum, or message board, allows you to create topics for other members to discuss and reply to. I was just looking to post questions about good ways to earn more points from games, which are the site’s currency and are used to buy virtual items for your pets.

Soon though, I realized I had stumbled upon something pretty special. Unlike other Internet communities, this one was regulated enough to keep it friendly, but not so censored that you couldn’t say anything. The forum had a community of more than a thousand active members. In fact, it was about a lot more than just Neopets—although I eventually stopped playing the games, as did other members, we stayed involved with the forums. Besides games, we talked about pretty much everything, whether it was new movies and homework help, more serious issues like the war in Iraq and gay rights, or just random silliness.

Although most of the members also lived in the United States, there were members from all over the world, and I was able to see what other cultures thought about our country, pop culture and controversial issues. It was also interesting to talk to people of all different ages. I got a lot of support with my art and writing. Getting compliments from people about stories I had written was great, and even critiques were a lot easier to take when they weren’t face-to-face.

A few months after I joined, I was chosen to become a "mod," or moderator of the site. That meant making sure all the content was acceptable, reprimanding members who broke the site rules and answering questions. The position made me a much more noticeable member, and I started talking with other active members on AOL Instant Messenger, making dozens of good friends. Eventually, we grew together as a separate community. We all got LiveJournals, which allowed us to keep up with what we were doing in "real life."

The best part about making friends online has been getting to take some of these relationships beyond the computer. Although my parents were worried about my security, when I went away to summer camp, they agreed that I could give everyone my camp address, since it wouldn’t tell people where I actually lived. I got at least eight letters—two filled with confetti that fell all over my room. The letters especially helped because I was having a miserable time and felt like I had no one to talk to.

I got a chance to actually meet an online friend in real life when I went on vacation to San Francisco. I’d left a note in my LiveJournal telling everyone where I’d be going. When I went online at the hotel, I found a comment from my friend Kim telling me that she lived nearby in Palo Alto, and asking if I wanted to get together.

After checking with my parents, I rushed back to the computer to let her know that I could meet her on my way back to Los Angeles. We exchanged cell phone numbers and set up a meeting place and time. After hanging up, though, I began to get nervous. I had known her for a few months, but meeting someone in person is a lot different than chatting over the Internet, and I was worried it wouldn’t turn out well.

We both brought people with us for safety reasons—I brought my parents and she brought a friend—and met in front of a bookstore. I got there a few minutes early, and instructed my parents to please try not to embarrass me. I didn’t see her at first, but after a few minutes, we both recognized each other.

We had so much to share

Even though I’d never met her before, I felt like I knew her from all the times we’d talked online. It was great to actually have someone to talk to about the forums, since my "real life" friends didn’t find them as important or interesting as I did. We talked about other members, upcoming mod applications and competitions being run on the site, although I think my parents and her friend thought we were crazy.

We also talked about graphic design, the classes we were taking, clubs we were in and college, which we were both stressed out about since California schools are so competitive and it’s becoming harder to get accepted into good universities. My parents seemed to have a good time too—my dad got into some incredibly involved science conversation with Kim’s friend Derrick.

The meeting lasted less than an hour, since I had to get home. At the end, we hurried outside to take photos with each other, then said goodbye. Even though the meeting was short, it was a lot of fun, and we made plans to get together again if I came up north or she visited near Los Angeles. Now, we talk online several times a week. Before we had only a few conversations a month.

Meeting Kim helped my parents and I get more used to the idea of online and offline life intersecting. Now I’m hoping to meet other friends from the forum who live near Los Angeles. I’m glad to have found friends who I never would have discovered otherwise.