Image description : three telephones, two connected together by their cords and one with its cord trailing off.
Just over a year ago, I watched one of my best friends step off the National Express opposite The Four Candles and ran to hug her for the first time in my life. This was a girl who knew my biggest hopes and dreams, my deepest insecurities, my most closely-protected secrets – but also a girl I had never met before. Yet that initial hug felt like the most natural thing in the world – as if it were our hundredth and not our very first.
Despite never having stood side by side before, our footsteps immediately fell in sync as we laughed together and linked arms. With the exchange of a few incredulous looks between us, we continued the conversation we’d held online for over three years as if it was simply an ordinary Friday night.
Growing up in the 21st century, our generation’s opportunities for communication have snowballed beyond belief. Asking for help on homework is now just a groupchat away, talking to your crush no longer confined to note passing in class, and updating your best friend on said communication comes in the form of an immediate (albeit potentially stressful and/or emotional) phone-call. Sure, our parents may have had pen pals and landlines, but the internet has given us a 24/7 shared connection which was never previously available. We can talk to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time of day.
With this comes the possibility of becoming friends with people you would otherwise never have met – the emergence of ‘internet friends.’ Friendship as a concept has been liberated from the shackles of locality, expanding far beyond neighbours and secondary school acquaintances.
Instead of being defined by proximity, connections can now grow from shared interests and passions, the things people feel most strongly about. Interactions arise and conversations are struck up; before you know it, a simple bonding moment over a shared love for a band has blossomed into a rich and fruitful friendship lasting years, with someone you could now never imagine your life without.
However, online friendships –especially those that are exclusively online – are often met with scepticism and doubt. In the absence of nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions, it can be hard to decipher if someone is truly who they say they are, or if they are merely presenting a carefully curated version of their lives, erased of all flaws.
How could a relationship based on an artificial perception be in any way genuine? And that’s not even considering the risk of catfishing – how do you avoid malevolent strangers online when all you know is the information they offer?
We can talk to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time of day.
Thankfully, the growth of online dating has dispelled the majority of these fears. With some careful treading and a pinch of salt, I do genuinely believe that these more dangerous situations can very easily be avoided. Friendships made online or in person don’t necessarily need to belong in separate categories; ultimately, they are both simply manifestations of love. I certainly no longer distinguish between the two. Hope, my ‘internet best friend’, is just as substantial a part of my life as anyone I have grown up with and have been able to compare heights with.
When I got an offer from Oxford, she shared in my joy. When she got an amazing job opportunity after years of working tirelessly, I shared in hers. And in the many times each of us have been dealt poor hands romantically, we have vented and screamed and cried for each other. True friendship consists of navigating the highs and lows together, sticking by each other’s sides as you pass through the trenches of life. Laughing and crying with them? Just as easy to do online as in person.
In fact, in many ways I’d argue that online friendships are often more genuine. The element of anonymity offered by the internet can make it easier to open up and to share parts of yourself you might otherwise find difficult. There’s something very special about the fact that you can know the things someone keeps closest to their heart before finding out they have a dog three years later into the friendship.
For many teenagers, this escape is lifesaving. Closeted LGBTQ+ youth in unsafe home environments, for example, can enter a world where they feel safe and welcome, where they are reminded that no matter their situation there is always someone there to support them, where they can be their true selves from the get-go.
In my personal experience, talking to Hope meant that I could talk through things and figure out who I was in a safe and healthy manner. While I couldn’t always complain to her about the pains of the British school system and exams, I found that I could talk to her about things I wouldn’t always feel ready to approach with school friends. When we started talking, she got to know me, a 15-year-old still exploring my sexuality and firmly closeted to people I knew in real life, as someone decidedly not straight, the ‘real me’. The bond that this creates is almost unbreakable.
Laughing and crying with them? Just as easy to do online as in person.
Especially in times like these, when our world is increasingly shifting online, the pertinence of internet friends rings loud and clear. Reports reveal that two in three Brits felt lonely during the first wave of lockdown – particularly worrying considering that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Therefore, maintaining online friendships with people who truly understand you for who you are can be more comforting than ever.
Clichéd as it may sound, love really can take countless forms in one’s life and whether it arrives in yours in the form of a seating plan at school or a follow back on Twitter, who are we to judge?
That weekend I spent with Hope will forever stand out in my mind as some of the most extraordinary days of my life, not just because I managed to replace Oxford with Winter Wonderland for two blissful days, but because I felt so instantly at home with someone who had always been limited to my screen. In following her back, I gained both a cheerleader and a confidante for life.
Here’s to online friendship, in all of its glory, from the homemade memes and playlists to the time-zone induced lack of sleep and poor connections – may it prosper evermore.