Last year, when the pandemic was at its peak, I began watching live streams on YouTube. What I was hoping to find on the stream was cute cat videos, but somehow instead, ended up making an online friend via the stream’s comments section. I now share some of my deepest secrets with him: a faceless name who (definitely) knows more about me than some of my closest friends.
While I thought this was a friendship that was unique only to us, I quickly realised that I wasn’t the only one to have found an online friend. That I wasn’t the only one to have revisited a pen-pal-esque world, one that was once at an all-time high. If you're a millennial, you must remember MSN and Orkut, or for the Gen-Z's, you are well-versed with Bumble BFF or even with the joy of connecting with like-minded individuals on Twitter or Quora, even communities like Wattpad and Discord. We live in an age where one of the most challenging things to do is to socially connect with another person, let alone the horrors of ghosting or catfishing, to go out to find or meet a new friend in a social set-up with loud music and flowing cocktails can be overwhelming.
When the lockdown restrictions came down on us all, many turned to the digital space to look for ways to communicate and unwind outside of their household and social circles. Even more so, because just like that, suddenly all our friends were stuck in the same mundane routine as us: eat-sleep-work-Netflix. There was not much to say or talk about. Conversations that once lasted for hours, suddenly dwindled, into minutes, a few seconds and then moved entirely to messaging.
What is it about online friendships that works? While conversations with friends can reach a point of stagnation, with your online friend, one could argue, there is always that initial topic, or a theme, most likely the one that brought you two together to begin with. Going back to my online friend, we connected thanks to Jose Covaco’s Ghost Stories live stream on YouTube.
So this begs the question: are online friendships inherently different to physical ones? But while this question may be straightforward, the answer is less so.
According to an interview on Psychology Today in 2020, counsellor Suzanne Degges-White believes that all friendships consist of three things: "mutual affinity, mutual respect and reciprocity". All of which, I believe, can be achieved over the airwaves, especially within communities or through a Twitter thread.
Anita*, a 36 year old writer and editor, believes that such friendships start off spontaneously. They begin from the love of shared interests, because of which, "the bond that develops is an extraordinary one." This start alone almost guarantees that people you engage with will have at least some overlap of interest with you. As Anita put it, "I find I can skip all the boring small talk… [and be] myself from the start".
For Varun, a 30-something pandemic-turned anti-social, what started off as a random Saturday night discussion on Discord is now a safe space for him. "This is one of the most comfortable, open, honest and carefree relationships I've been in. The freedom to just open a chat window and type anything that you think of, however random it might be, however weird it might be."
To suggest that online friendships are easier due to the more frequent incidence of mutual interest alone would be missing one of the internet's most notable features—anonymity.
Separated by screens and optic fibres, messaging online obscures our personas allowing us to feel more at ease. It jettisons any nerves-inducing physical factors like self-image, and speech and body language issues. In an interview in 2019 on the Australian ABC Everyday, psychologist Leanne Hall suggested that side-lining self-consciousness results in finding it easier to share parts of ourselves we might otherwise find difficult.
For many students, like Tara*, making friends online was the only medium she had, with colleges and schools shut for an indefinite period. "My college experience has been online till now, and even though I don't have a 'large' group of friends or the shared experiences that our seniors experienced, personally, it has been easier for me to socialise and make friends within my class, and through the various platforms that are so easily available to us – from educational ones to social ones."
While forming online friendships was easier during the lockdown phase, as the world continues to open up, online relationships find a comfortable space to coexist with physical ones. "My boyfriend knows about my online friend; he understands the space and relationship that I have with this person and respects that boundary too. He knows that without the dog and raccoon memes that my online friend and I send to each other, my day would feel incomplete," explains Simran* when asked about how she balances her real relationships with her online friendship. "While this will never replace the feeling of being with a friend in person, it is comforting to know that I can pick up my phone and start typing my thoughts, worries, or even share my happiness with someone who thinks of me in the same way."
It could be easy to assume that the pandemic has changed our perception of online friendships, but after speaking to many of my own friends about my online friend, I don't think that is the case. Or as Varun put it: “The platforms always existed. It was always possible to make friends online, but the pandemic just gave it a huge nudge; it made people turn to apps, online communities, gaming groups and such to search for companionship.
The fact that many of us are now leaning on virtual friendships has simply helped normalise a phenomenon, allowing us to realise that the beauty and benefits of friendship are not constrained by anything.
*Names changed to respect the identities of the interviewees.
Richa Sheth is a freelance writer exploring the social complexities that inform human interaction. She is based in Pune.