An argument for breaking down the hierarchy of friendships made online and those initiated IRL.
My first internet friend was a 13-year-old girl named Yasmine. She founded and edited MG, a magazine by and for Muslim girls in 2005, and skillfully ran the operation out of a Yahoo Group. I was a writer myself—a staffer at my middle school paper and a self published poet on Xanga—so I eagerly reached out to Yasmine about contributing. I was surprised how quickly we became friends, bonding over shared dreams of becoming professional writers in emails and instant messages. It wasn’t long before we asked both our parents to facilitate an offline meet-up at a local Muslim conference, where we embraced and chatted excitedly while our parents lingered nearby.
At the time, my parents had a healthy suspicion of the internet—specifically social networking sites, before the term actually existed—developed over years of obsessively watching To Catch a Predator, where host Chris Hanson would lure potential sex offenders out from their chat room dungeons and publicly shame them on national TV. The show capitalized on fears that the web was an often anonymous space that ran parallel to, but separate from the real world. The real world you could trust—but the digital realm was a lawless universe of anything goes.
So my parents prohibited me from MySpace, monitored my AIM chats, supervised my NeoPets accounts. But this didn’t stop me from posting Green Day-inspired political poetry to my FictionPress page or penning short stories about Harry Potter for FanFiction.net under an anonymous screenname (LibyanPrincess92, if you must know). These sites connected me to a world of other teenagers who, like me, spent their lunch hours writing and reading at the school library, avoiding eye contact and social interactions with other students. I formed friends not in the cafeteria but in the comments sections, commiserating with my fellow web denizens over shared contempt for the conformist traditions of middle school culture and our alienation from mainstream society. These people felt closer, and more real, than those who abided by the exclusionary policies of schoolyard cliques.
And yet, 10 years later, there remains a suspicion that bonds produced by an internet connection are less authentic, less meaningful than those made IRL—that the connections we forge over bits and bytes are fundamentally untrustworthy. The conversations we have, the relationships we form, the friends we make online are supposedly facile imitations of the real thing—perhaps even fiction. In 2011, social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson would name this concept “digital dualism”—the idea that the “digital world is ‘virtual’ and the physical world is ‘real.’”
But this is no longer a useful or accurate, hierarchy for organizing our relationships. Today, it’s possible to generate a satisfying social life from online connections due to the countless apps and sites designed specifically to put us in touch with people we’d have trouble meeting in meatspace. These connections are as real as ones made in bars or coffee shops, and can be just as significant to one’s daily emotional health as a dinner date with a friend. My current friend group is almost entirely composed of people I met on Tumblr or Twitter during high school and college. My best friend and I became closer after trading tweets about some shared mutual disdain and arranged an in-person hangout after discovering we lived only a few miles from each other. I’ve met up with Tumblr friends on trips to New York—people who were meeting me for the first time IRL, but already had extensive knowledge of my personal life and anxieties from overwrought blogposts. This summer in London, I stayed at the apartment of a friend who I first followed on Twitter because I enjoyed an essay they published online.
But this transition from “internet friend” to “friend” doesn’t require a physical meet-up as it does the escalation of trust over the course of hundreds of interactions, digital or otherwise. Online, intimacy and affection is established over shared interests and passions—the same as in the physical world.
As platforms increasingly link one another, this demands greater transparency—our profiles become accurate extensions of who we are. It makes sense, then, that those we connect with online are people we would have been friends with anyway, had we met in college or at work. All the internet does is collapse the processes and roadblocks that once complicated friend-making. Want to be friends? Slide into my DMs.