We live in a world where I can FaceTime my mom on my laptop in real-time even though she’s over 4,000 miles away. I can see her new puppy bounce around adorably, listening to his tiny barks as clearly as I could in real life.
Simultaneously, I can text my friend Megan who’s living in Australia. She’s asleep right now, but I want her to see these puppy pictures when she wakes up. I haven’t seen her in person for nearly a year, but our friendship is just as strong as ever.
I speak nearly daily to folks I’ve never met before — people who I’d consider good friends, people who support me in some of the biggest challenges I face nowadays. I may have never heard their voice, but I know them, sometimes more than I know people I’m friends with in “real” life.
Whether by choice, necessity, or convenience, a lot of relationships start, continue and end online. More than ever, people like me are building online relationships. We gain a lot of our interaction from Slack, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp.
And yet it’s tough. Why?
It’s hard to make, maintain, and strengthen online friendships.
Online interactions have been rightly criticized for being weaker, less viable methods of keeping friendships on “life support.” From a personal standpoint, I understand. If 93% of communication is nonverbal, then 100% of the limited interactions we have with one another online are only fulfilling 7% of the spectrum of human communication. And that sucks.
That’s not great news for the vast range of people we interact with online — but I’m not talking only about the “friends” that you speak to once a year when Facebook prompts you to wish them a happy birthday. Even the long-lived, fulfilling, rich relationships you’ve spent years or even decades cultivating might transition to the online world where they die unless you're careful.
I know when I work from home, many times the conversations I have with coworkers are stilted or awkward, forced into an unnatural medium when they’d be far more straightforward in person.
When I’m comforting friends who have experienced tragedy, bereavement, job loss or even just had a bad day, it’s more difficult to gauge the social cues. In person, I know when to stay silent, and when to prompt the conversation. Online, my only cue is the three dots in a chat box that might come up and disappear as my friend struggles with what to say.
While in university, people would frequently gather in my room to have tea and biscuits (I went to a British uni) — we’d chat and laugh and joke. I’d never invite the same group of folks into a video call or chat group to do the same. There are some things which are facilitated with physical props and feel awkward to do online.
Finally, it’s hard to be friends with someone when all you see is their highlight reel: their ups and even higher ups, as they are engaged, promoted, vacationed, as they enter parenthood or get their nails done.
In real life, I see a much more nuanced view of my friends. I see them tired, angry, hungover and exhausted along with exuberant, thrilled, exultant, and tipsy. There’s only so much success you can see in your friends, unmoderated by the day-to-day inanities we all experience, without starting to feel at least a little jealous.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to make friends online, and harder in some ways to keep those friendships that have migrated to the digital world alive. Not only that, normal faux-pas that would test but not break an in-person friendship have a far greater effect on your online relationships.
But it’s necessary.
I’ve written before about how much I appreciate and love the technology that lets me keep in touch with far-flung friends and relatives. When you’re thousands of miles and five time zones away from the people you grew up with, it’s tricky to rely on in-person interactions, expensive phone calls, and late-arriving letters to stay in touch.
Flights are cheap, jobs are global, and I’m not so rich in meaningful i-person friendships that I can turn online ones down just because I’ve rarely see them in person. Our worlds are growing wider, and to eschew digital communication altogether seems not only unnecessary, but actively harmful to ourselves, our relationships, and our communities.
Staying friends with people online is hard. But it’s possible.
Take the basic tenets of friendship further.
Think about every basic characteristic that you like in a friend. For me, I like people who show up when they say they will, who listen well, who are funny, who reach out to check in with me, who support me, and who are honest.
None of those things rely on in-person communication. It just so happens that most of those things are easier in person. So to keep your online friendships strong, you need to identify what traits you appreciate and admire most and try to take them to the next level online.
If you say you’ll show up to a video call, don’t drop out at the last moment. Show up and be present.
If you can, call people. Video call. Group call. It’s free if you have a decent internet connection and it makes all the difference to get back some of that 93% of communication you’re missing with only texts.
Things like sharing memes can be a small and silly way to reach out. When someone tags me in a meme or sends me one, it’s a way for them to say they thought of me and wanted to let me know.
Though it might seem silly especially to older generations, memes are a low-commitment, high-result way to keep up with friends. I regularly tag my friends in pictures of cute cats on the Catspotting Facebook group, and am frequently tagged in return.
Start traditions. One group of friends I know of sends pictures in a WhatsApp group every time they see a consecutive number — so one person photographs the first number one they see, then a number two and so on. While some of the chat may just be people sending pictures of highway exits, it promps conversations — where are you going, what are you up to, why is that person selling 101 eggs. Give yourself excuses — no matter how silly or serious — to stay in touch.
Listening is more difficult online, and consequently more important. In chats, it’s so easy to “talk over” someone simply by typing out whatever you want, whether or not it’s related to the conversation. Sometimes you’re grocery shopping, or you’re interrupted in the middle of your chat, or for whatever reason, you have to put your phone down and you might forget to come back to the chat. It’s so important to tune your virtual ears to your friend who’s typing to you and even if you do it asynchronously over a span of ten hours, ensure you’re giving it your all.
Stay on topic. Ask open-ended questions. Reflect back to them what you’re understanding — the written medium is easier to misinterpret, after all — and even if you can do nothing else, tell them you’re ready to give them your time. When it’s so easy to text people, it can feel like an insult when you don’t spare those thirty seconds to send a quick text.
Make sure you’re on board with what the other people you’re friends with online want. If you only ever want to vent to them, it might be draining for them to stay in touch with you. If you’re constantly offering solutions when they want emotional support, they’re not going to feel heard. Communicate your expectations for what you both want out of the friendship early and often.
Being friends online is harder, but it’s worthwhile doing.
All of these things are what we do far more instinctively in person than we do online. In my opinion, online friendships aren’t radically different to those that are predominantly in person. It’s just easier in some respects — easier to feel closer to people while doing none of the work, easier to send a text to stay in touch. But it’s harder in others. You won’t see these online friends at parties, you won’t run into them grocery shopping. You’ll have to make the effort.
One of the hardest things for me is that many, many times, I’m the friend who reaches out. I send the text, I make the call, I ask for the meetup. It hurts to think that I value the relationship more, but it’s something you might have to accept.
Many of your relationships now may not be as even as you think — putting them into the digital world just makes that gap more obvious. You’ll have to make the choice, as I did, whether it’s worth swallowing your pride and being the keener friend, or whether it’s not.
I don’t think we’ll return to predominantly in-person relationships any time soon, unless we see some kind of apocalyptic post-technology world. Instead of complaining about how online relationships aren’t as good, or as easy, or as meaningful as in-person ones, I prefer to work on improving all the relationships I value, whether in person or not.