I was raised not to talk to strangers. Strangers, I was taught as a child, are people we’ve never met before, therefore we don’t know them. Childhood me would have been horrified to know that, now in my 30s, I frequently engage with complete randoms without giving it much thought. I’m not just talking about shop staff who make the mistake of asking me how my day is going, only to be met with a very honest, over-sharing response. I mean the way that social media apps have evolved to illicit a reaction or response, how my thumb reflexively double-taps a metronome as I scroll, giving iambic rhythm to the red hearts that pulse before my eyes. I am not alone in counting people I’ve connected with online as my friends, but how do these friendships compare to those we have in person?
There is a certain ease in making online connections that can’t be replicated offline and it’s this ease that appeals to the time-poor, emotionally guarded side of me. Follow? Follow back, job done! While I had a large group of friends at secondary school, I wouldn’t say I am now part of anything that looks like Taylor Swift’s #squadgoals, a term often used to describe her large yet intimate circle of friends. Nor would I know how to go about getting a squad. According to Dr Marisa G Franco, psychologist, friendship expert and author of Platonic, making friends as an adult is more complicated than when we were kids. “Children in school have what sociologists consider the essential ingredients for friendship to happen organically, which is repeated unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability. As adults, we don’t really have environments with those elements, because at work we’re maybe more guarded and less vulnerable, even if we see each other every day.”
As an introvert, I value the ability to connect with likeminded people without the strain of social gatherings, yet there is always the risk that online connections can be shallow, lacking the authenticity that comes with being vulnerable and unguarded. Author and broadcaster Emma Gannon says in her book, Disconnected: How to Stay Human in an Online World: “Social-media projection allows us to hide the truth of our real selves and thus inhibits real connection.” I can’t be the only one to have typed “hahaha” or the crying with laughter emoji into a chat without so much as a flicker of a smile, but I’ve also feigned laughter at a bad joke in person because sometimes it is the polite thing to do. Whether in company or behind a screen, a deeper connection is formed when a joke lands and laughter erupts, deep and true.
Being online undoubtedly makes it easier to be inauthentic (just look at catfishes), but sometimes the distance that is built into our online interactions gives people the courage to express themselves more freely and honestly. As therapist and author Emma Reed Turrell says, “You have the opportunity to show up online as yourself, so there’s a real permission that comes for online friendships to automatically self-select the groups you want to follow and be there in ways you want to be there.” I’ve curated my social-media feed so it is filled with content that reflects my values and interests. Online, I’m privy to a person’s political views, family values, sense of humour, taste in music, etc, and based on that I can gauge the amount of common ground this person and I may share.
For the same reasons, there is also a complicated dynamic when we engage with people online that falls into the territory of parasocial relationships, a term coined by sociologists in the 1950s to describe the phenomenon where a person feels close to a celebrity or public figure. There’s a danger that intimate content can breed a sense of affinity that isn’t reciprocated. In other words, you may follow someone who posts pictures of their home, their holidays, moments of triumph and heartbreak, and begin to empathise with them. They may refer to their followers as “friends”, evoking feelings of familiarity and affection. Meanwhile, this person you have grown a fondness for doesn’t follow you back and doesn’t even know you exist.
But what of the relationships that are reciprocated? I ask my online friend Kat, who lives in Utah, if she thinks we’d still get on if we met in person. We both agree we would. We have a lot in common, have had numerous FaceTimes and been open and honest with one another. While there is a level of effort that goes into maintaining any friendship, as Kat says, “It’s easier online. I’m already online all the time. Checking in is so easy.”
The expectations that online friends have of one another are also different. I am more understanding of the fact that a virtual friend has a whole life outside our friendship. My online friends can pick up their phone, be there for me and then put their phone (and me) back down afterwards. I don’t think this in anyway diminishes the value of our friendships. If anything, it can be a great comfort to know that support is a swipe away. Perhaps the ease and distance that is baked into these interactions is enabling for those who would otherwise be resistant to reaching out at times of need.
For those who live with disabilities or conditions that hinder accessibility to certain jobs and events, having a chance to communicate online is a force for good. As a millennial, my childhood and teenage years took place in an analogue world. Younger generations, however, are born into a world that can be navigated via touchscreens. Yet this shift doesn’t eradicate loneliness. In 2019, YouGov conducted a poll in the US and found nearly a quarter of millennials couldn’t name a single friend, while a more recent survey on wellbeing and loneliness conducted by the UK government in 2020/2021 found that “16 to 24-year-olds report the highest levels of loneliness”.
Connecting with strangers online can raise difficult questions around the nature of friendship and how to define it. Jocelyn, 24, is often involved in quite frank and personal online interactions because of content that she shares around faith and mental health. “A girl reached out to me online as a result of one of my YouTube videos,” she says, “and we ended up having really long conversations, typing paragraphs back and forth. Having said that, I struggle to think of a name for what I would call her, because I wouldn’t describe her as my ‘friend’ despite having had a meaningful interaction.”
Jocelyn is well aware that without physical interaction, online friendships can have their limitations. “It is very easy to play up or play down your responses based on the emojis or the punctuation you use. I love to use exclamation marks! It’s how I convey to the person reading my message that I am interested in what they are saying, but I know close friends who write more bluntly… and that can lead to miscommunication.”
Dr Franco explains how one of the ways social media can contribute to loneliness is by discouraging us from taking more risks. Rather than going out, we have “something else to do that makes us feel connected enough, and that can be the problem of this pseudo connection. It doesn’t give us the full nutrients of genuine connection.” Emma Gannon echoes this sentiment: “The connections I made felt extremely shallow over time, because so many people were liking or commenting or leaving a fire emoji, but I was lacking deeper connection.”
I recently learned I may have an avoidant attachment style, so the low expectations and distance of online friendships make them feel safer to navigate on some level. I am fortunate, however, to have close friends who aren’t online, so can benefit from the variety of both online and offline friendships while being aware of how each of these serve me and where the boundaries are for me personally. Dr Franco tells me that online friendships can work if they inform our offline relationships. “Ask yourself, what have I learned from these online relationships that I can take to my offline relationships?”
I agree with Emma Reed Turrell that you don’t necessarily have to be with someone to connect with them, and that being in someone’s company doesn’t mean you’re connecting. I’m also aware of my own contradictions – I have two children at home who are old enough to have their own phones and laptops, and I tell them they must never speak to strangers online, ever. I then unlock my phone and DM an author whose book I read and loved, delighted to be able to connect this way when they, a stranger, message me back.