When I tell people that I have close online friendships, they get this look. This sharpening of their eyebrows, this curve of their lips -- something torn between pity and superiority. There’s a notion in our culture that online friendships are less real than their in-person counterparts, and therefore, the logic goes, I would need to be incapable of forming friendships in my day-to-day life to talk to people I’ve never met.
That look I get is what happens when someone projects those ideas onto me. It is the moment that they think, I didn’t know he was that antisocial or I didn’t know he was that lonely, because of course I’d have to be alienated to want to make close friends online.
With so many people questioning their validity, it is easy for many of us to feel insecure about our own social-media-based relationships. The idea that friendships require in-person contact is a pervasive one. But the different dynamics of Internet friendships do not discount their value.
All people categorize their friendships: school friends, work friends, fandom friends, and so on. “Internet friends” is just another category. We relate to online friends in a different way than to our in-person friends because neither relationship is built on the same connections. In my case, my Internet friends are more queer and more book-loving, while my in-person friends are more academic and more interested in local gossip. Neither group, however, is inherently more important than the other.
In the five years that I’ve been active online, I have never viewed the Internet as an alternative to my in-person world, but rather as an extension of it. Growing up in a homogenous town, I had no connection to people who looked or spoke or thought differently than I did except through the writing forums I used to frequent. From early on, the Internet hand-delivered me a world more open and diverse than the one I lived in.
And I loved it.
I met people who spoke freely about race and mental illness and gender and sexuality; I met people who, like me, loved writing novels; I met people who drew power from being introverted, who joked that shyness was not a flaw but was, rather, a way for them to gather information and eventually conquer the world.
When I think of online friendships, I think of the writers I’ve swapped stories with, the music lovers who have shared in my excitement over new albums by the likes of Melanie Martinez and Troye Sivan, the teen bloggers who have pushed me to become my best, most aware self. I think of the people on Twitter who spoke freely about their sexualities, thus becoming the first of anyone I knew to identify as something other than straight, and who embraced me when I tweeted those once-dreaded words: “I’m queer.”
I think of the realization I had in the days following -- that the community I’d found online had given me the confidence to fully embrace who I am; that I’d finally found my safe space.
But above all, I think of the handful of friends with whom I text book recommendations and Arrested Development GIFs and impromptu essays about how much high school sucks, who make me laugh and then breathe when I swear my life is falling apart, who inspire me to be better every single day.
I think of the video chats they have forced me to partake in; I think of the Twitter threads we have spent trying to one-up each other with witty rebuttals. Some of these friends I have met in person. Some I have talked down from suicide. But all of them I’ve shared a piece of my soul with. Just because we only meet in person a couple times per year does not diminish how much they mean to me.
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