Read enough stories about the internet and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s main function is teenage bullying, criminal grooming and trolling public figures. But the internet also helps us find people like us, people you can’t spot on the bus, like never before. Before finding my own tribe in 2013, I was sad and broke, having traded my life savings for an apparently useless journalism MA.
Unemployment is lonely. There were a million of us at the time, but career advice distances you from people going through the same thing: you’re meant to stand out, beat the competition, get a billboard CV. Since there was no community, I decided to start one: an anonymous blog called How To Be Jobless.
I made it funny, because no one likes a whinger. I was crying on my bedroom floor while tweeting: “Jobless tip of the day: turn an internship into a job – put crack in the boss’s coffee. All they’ll know is things are just better when you’re around.” When I started getting likes and comments, it felt I wasn’t alone. We shared horror stories, wished each other luck, celebrated each other’s successes.
When I started work at the Guardian, the response was overwhelming. Congratulations rolled in, almost entirely from strangers – and all we’d bonded over was having nowhere to be at 9am. It was as if they were trolling me with support (suprolling?). The internet is really just a mass of invisible communities, waiting to be brought together. Here, five people share their stories of online redemption.
Elisa Roche, 39, London; beauty writer
I’d always had odd-looking feet – massive, overpronounced bunions almost at a right angle on my big toes, with the second toes on both feet really long, the third and fourth toes really tiny, as if their growth had been stunted, and a little toe that stopped growing when I was seven. I also had really high arches. I’m 5ft 8in, but I had size four feet, so I was always buckling and falling over. People would ask: “Have you had a drink?”
I wouldn’t let anyone see my feet. I lived in the French Caribbean for a year and never went barefoot on a beach. One boyfriend made me wear socks to bed. People would say: “You’ve got a nice face, why are you worried about your feet?” But it was becoming physically painful.
In 2007, I Googled “odd toe, long toe, short toes” and a condition popped up: brachymetatarsia. I typed it into Facebook and found a US support group; I couldn’t find anything in Britain. When they accepted me, I looked at all their pictures and posts and felt that I’d found my tribe. I was elated. Looking at the gallery was like looking at pictures of my own feet. I felt relieved to have a name for it: I knew self-diagnosis could be dodgy, but this was definitely right.
Once I joined the group and explained that I was thinking about seeing a specialist, I got so many messages advising, guiding, telling me what to expect. With medical conditions, people often get scared about the unknown. The fear is greater than the actual pain, but if you’re prepared for it mentally and even have pictures as guidance, it helps with the fear. By the time I got to surgery, it was really helpful to know what to expect, how long the recovery process would be and how painful it would be.
I’m not active on the group any more; there comes a point when you’ve all shared your pictures and helped each other. But once in a while I’ll get a message from someone who is about to have surgery, and I’ll help them out.
Adam Bradford, 25, London; entrepreneur
I grew up in Sheffield and went to a difficult school: there were bullies, drugs, fights, gangs, knives. When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, aged 12, the teachers thought it would be a great idea to tell my class all about autism while I wasn’t there. That label stuck with me throughout school. Bullies would wait for me outside the gates; I’d deliberately stay an extra hour and get my mum to pick me up so I could avoid them. It started to feel like a disability and a problem.
When I was 14, the school entered me into a local business competition. They gave us £25 and my brothers and I started a tiny business helping teachers to incorporate computers into their lessons. We made about £5,000 in the first two years. I thought: “This is a route to a career,” so I set up a website and started to use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and began to express my personality there by talking about autism. Now, 99% of the people I know I met online. I met my current business partner on Instagram; we started a branding consultancy for charities before we ever met. When we travel, we post online – “Who’s in Kenya?” – and meet people we’ve spoken to only virtually.
The online world has changed everything for me. I’m very lucky: in an earlier time, I couldn’t have done it. It’s not only a virtual record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done, it’s an outlet. Like attracts like, so if you’re your authentic self online, you’re going to attract people like you.
Winnie Kan, 23, Surabaya, Indonesia; artist
I found the Hamster Hideout forum when I was in high school; I didn’t have a hamster yet, but I really wanted one. I ended up getting a pair of Russian hamsters. They are really good to people, but they didn’t like each other and they kept fighting. So I asked on the forum how to take care of them and whether I should separate them, which I did in the end.
For two years, I visited the forum every day. I liked helping people, especially the newbies who needed hamster help. I posted some of my art on the forum and people started offering me commissions to do portraits of their pets. Word spread, and I got more clients. It’s now my main job. Since I started, I’ve had more than 100 commissions. I mostly draw hamsters and other small rodents, but also cats and dogs.
Now, five years on, I’ve had about 20 hamsters. I’m not on the forum any more; I stopped because a friend got kicked out and I didn’t think it was fair. But I’m involved in a different Facebook hamster group called Hamster Help with the Pipsqueakery, a small animal rescue centre. I get to know people from all over the world; it’s really weird when I think that it all started with hamsters.
Pragya Agarwal, 40, Formby; professor and business owner
I was a senior academic teaching design and marketing, but I’d gone through quite a bad phase of workplace bullying and almost had a breakdown, so I left. I started tutoring children at home and lecturing remotely at US universities, but it was isolating: I was at home, not really interacting with people apart from students; my daughter had just gone to university and we had just moved to Formby, where I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t going out of the house most days. I tried to pretend I was coping.
I started a design business called Hedge Hog Prints, but I was losing my way. Selling online, you become really commercialised; I lost the artisanal perspective I started off with. Then I found a community on Facebook called Ethical Hour, devoted to ethically minded businesses. Initially, I just read the posts, but I started talking to people and came across all these businesses – sustainable fashion, ethical tourism, vegan shoes – and identified with the need to make a positive change at a time when I was feeling so down.
Art and creativity helped me with anxiety and depression, and this community inspired me to launch a social enterprise called The Art Tiffin, selling non-toxic, vegan art boxes. Some of the profits will go to a mental health charity.
On the internet, people can bully others because they can hide behind a wall; similarly, it’s easier to express your feelings to strangers, because you’re not seeing them face to face. I still think you need face-to-face interactions, but I don’t feel as lonely. I interact with the group every day. It’s such a helpful community: you can post any concerns that you have and people come back with advice. It’s like chatting and brainstorming around the water cooler.
Fred McConnell, 31, Deal, Kent; journalist
I was 23 when I first heard the word transgender. I was watching YouTube and stumbled across a documentary about trans teenagers. I’d grown up wanting to be a boy, but repressed a lot of that when I hit puberty. I would never have figured it out unless I discovered that being trans might be the answer.
Within two weeks. I’d made an appointment with my GP, and became obsessed with people’s transition blogs and diaries. I remember being in a university lecture, thinking: “I could tell all these people what I’ve discovered!” I was so naive; I didn’t even realise it would come with stigma. A week or so later, the positivity started wearing off when I realised why I hadn’t discovered this before: because it was seen as shameful.
I lived online for three or four years. If I had a question, I could find someone who’d done a vlog about it. I even chose my surgeon because of YouTube; everyone on there was talking about him, and that information wasn’t anywhere else at that point. I could see all these guys showing off their chests, the nipple placement, the scar healing perfectly aligned with where pec muscles would develop. They made videos about the organisation involved, their first gender clinic appointment, how to collect your first testosterone shot, how to inject it. The release form for testosterone tells you it makes you infertile, then you go on YouTube and see pregnant men. It made it all less scary.
The drifting away was very gradual. It was most important pre-transition, because you’re living in this body that’s causing you psychological pain and you can’t talk to other people about it. My transition was the real start of my life. It might have happened in another way, but the fact is it happened on the internet. And it was life-changing.