Internet friendships

(This post is dedicated to Patreon backer David Lamb, who wanted to hear my thoughts about Internet friendships. At various Patreon tiers, you can commission blog posts, too!)

A perennial pet peeve of mine is when people dismiss Internet friendships as being “not real,” or not a proper way to have friends, in comparison to face-to-face friendships.

Internet friendships are a bit different from friendships in person, though. In my experience, it’s easier to do some things online, and easier to do some things in person.

Some things it’s easier to do in person:

  • Physically hug and enjoy the contact
  • Watch a person’s face and body language in real time
  • Share event-based experiences, like going to a concert or meal together
  • Help each other with physical tasks

And some things it’s easier to do online:

  • Find friends based on a rare or specialized interest
  • Lean on a forum or chat group for support and let whoever has spoons at the time interact with you, rather than bugging a lot of people individually
  • Bond over certain kinds of interest-based activities, such as making fanfiction/fanart, or deep essay-style analysis of a topic you both enjoy

There are also things that depend on the person. Some people find it easier to express deep feelings by writing, while others find it easier to express themselves aloud. For people like me who are more articulate with written speech, it’s easier to do that online. Other people’s mileage may vary. (This isn’t “neurotypical vs non-neurotypicals,” by the way; some non-neurotypicals have more trouble with writing than speaking. They’re valid.)

Often when people criticize social media for being shallow or causing low self-esteem, they’re not talking about the whole Internet. Instead, when you really delve into their argument, it seems that they’re talking about a very specific subset of the Internet.

For example, think of a place like Instagram, which:

  • Encourages people to post shiny pictures
  • Measures attention mostly in “likes” without a lot of in depth interaction
  • Makes it easy to find people with shinier pictures than you
  • Is mostly sorted by what’s most popular or controversial at a given time
  • Makes it easy to count your number of “likes,” compare it to the very popular stuff showing up on your feed, and feel inadequate
  • Makes it hard to share personal things in a safe/private way

And compare to a place like Dreamwidth, which:

  • Lets people write about themselves, their experiences, or their favorite topic in as much depth as they want
  • Lets people comment and converse in as much depth as they want
  • Doesn’t try to rank, classify, or compare its users
  • Gives users full control over privacy, access, and what shows up on their feed

Obviously these are not the only two ways to do things online, and they are also not black and white. Some people have good experiences with Instagram and some people have bad experiences with Dreamwidth. But it should be plain that many of the criticisms of “social media” are actually criticisms of the most common uses of a small handful of the most popular platforms, and they don’t encompass every online way of relating. Some platforms meet the need for meaningful connection better than others.

My own experience with online friendships have included many positive and meaningful things:

  • Connections with friends who shared interests with me and were weird in the same ways I was
  • Connections with fellow writers who understand and share the difficulties of a writing career
  • Connections with fellow autistic people which have taught me a huge amount about myself
  • Opportunities to share critiques and work on the craft of writing, including the skill of writing inclusively and sensitively, with people whose lives are very different from mine
  • Opportunities to network and build an audience as a writer in meaningful ways with people who are often very geographically distant from me

I have also experienced negative things online. People can be abusive online and non-abusive people can get into petty fights online just as easily as in real life. However, all these positive things I’ve experienced are real and have been easier for me to find online than in person – which doesn’t mean I don’t treasure them when I also find them in person.

Simply clicking “like” on someone’s post is not a very deep interaction, but sometimes it’s okay for interactions not to be deep.

  • People have shallow face-to-face interactions all the time
  • Like by nodding to each other when they pass in the street
  • Or by exchanging a perfunctory “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.”
  • These parts of human interaction are not worthless; they are rituals we have for a reason.
  • What does become a problem is when we have way more of these shallow interactions than the amount we want or need, and not enough deep or meaningful interactions.
  • Places on the Internet that strongly emphasize shallow interactions can make it easy for this problem to happen.

When people have needs that their online interactions are not meeting, and when there’s a good chance they could meet those needs in the face-to-face world, it can be good to encourage them to put their screens down and interact face-to-face more.

But doing it by shaming people, or by invalidating their online friendships, is a bad idea:

  • It hurts people who have less access to face-to-face friendships due to structural inequality (queer people in a small conservative town, for example, or housebound disabled people) and are doing the best they can with the tools available
  • It hurts people who have found validation and support in online spaces that they were unable to find in person for whatever other reason
  • It hurts people who have an easier time writing than speaking and who are inherently more able to be “real,” in the sense of fully expressing themselves, online
  • It removes support for people who have gone through a difficult online experience, like losing a close online friend, and are struggling with real feelings of grief.

Dismissing online social interactions as “not real” also helps enable some very specific bad behaviors:

  • Internet trolls often feel more emboldened to harass people online than in real life, because online interactions don’t “feel” real to them; but the people at the other end of the interaction are still real people who can be hurt by what they do
  • Harassment and bullying have always been around, but social media allows these things to occur in novel ways
  • For example, harassers on social media can start pile-ons in which thousands of people around the world join in the harassment
  • Preventing & dealing with online harassment is a difficult problem that requires deep thought about our social media platforms, who uses them for what purpose, and why
  • It also requires careful thinking about some thorny philosophical issues (for example: what’s the difference between a harassment campaign and a call-out?)
  • No one who believes that the Internet is inherently fake and silly is going to do this careful thinking.

The people who do bad things, or are affected by bad things online, are real. And the same goes for people who treat each other well online.

Online and face-to-face interaction are different in some important ways; but we do better by each other when we take them both seriously, and this includes the idea that online friendships are valid and real.

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