[Written By: Amy Shimmin]
Long gone are the days of never using your real name or image online. Our lives come with a lengthy virtual footprint, and for the generation emerging their lives from the womb can be traced. With our relationship with the Internet deeper than ever, it’s not just our faces that are visible – it’s our personalities and interests, too. Making friends online seems like a natural progression – but why is this still, in 2017, frowned upon?
I remember meeting my older cousin for lunch before she went to university a year before me. She told me about the important details: the course, the city, the weekly fancy dress club night. She also confidently said she had made friends already. ‘But how?’ I thought. Almost all of my friends at this stage had been made through school and work. She’d been able to connect through social media with people in her accommodation and course, and I believe she is still friends with some of those early pals, post-graduation.
This was something I would come to know very well as I embarked on my own studies. My third year of study was spent abroad and I nervously spent the summer prior chatting to people through Facebook groups. Some of these people I never went on to meet, our communication starting and ending online. Others, like the American girl who I remember tentatively messaging to ask for directions, would become very close friends. Having some grounds to start a conversation with someone in person – ‘are you Bethany I spoke to yesterday?’ – makes that initial approach that little less daunting. Even sometimes, when heading to an unfamiliar place, it was reassuring to know I could post in our community group asking for tips or suggestions from sort-of strangers, sort-of friends with whom I only shared a job title.
Other ways of making friends involve the discovery of mutual interests online – for example, over Tumblr, or forums. As a young Internet-er I remember being warned vivaciously about scary men who loomed over chat rooms (do chat rooms still exist??). There is, of course, great caution to be exercised when revealing details to someone, and I won’t undermine that. But it seems almost farcical that only you are the only good-intentioned Internet user in a western world where Internet is central. I’m not advocating sending your full name and address to the first person who messages your Tumblr, but rather to be cautiously optimistic in speaking to new people. You never know what could come of it.
There should also be no pressure for ‘online’ friendships to progress to a ‘real life’ one. Companionship is something so central to the human experience; loneliness is one of the most horrific experiences anyone can face. There seems to be a shame around making friends online, as if you have ‘failed’ to make them in the ‘real world’. Genuine bonds can be made online, whether that is meeting people in a new city, or uniting over a shared fandom. Our lives are so tied to being online nowadays that it’s almost impossible to distinguish the two. It’s 2017, baby: the Internet is the real world.
There have been friendships, too, that simply wouldn’t have survived (or perhaps not in the way they did) without the Internet. The wonderful people I met before heading abroad indeed became dear friends, yet now we are back in our respective homes. With distance spanning miles and time zones, our Facebook group chat has allowed it to feel like no distance exists at all. I was devastated to learn that the big screen lied about those multi-way calls, synonymous to any gossip scene in film; and it would be near impossible to facilitate a group friendship via snail mail. Shared platforms, like Facebook or Whatsapp, allow for a group dynamic to thrive, too. Sometimes you just need your entire friendship group to tell you that that outfit looks banging.
We have correctly and collectively moved away from the stigma surrounding online dating; apparently a third of couples today will have first met through the Internet. We seem to have run before we can walk, though – if we can meet romantic interests online, it is entirely plausible to make friends, too. Friendship is one of the purest joys of existence; if there are modern ways to expand your circle, or maintain it despite obstacles, we should be grabbing them with both hands.
Sure, it’s great to be introduced to a mutual friend is ‘certain you’ll get on with’ at a party. What’s the harm in making that virtual?