By Nakie Uzeiri
Accepting a Facebook request, liking an Instagram post, favoriting a Tweet–these are actions that lead to everyday virtual interaction with one another, all of which begin online friendships.
Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist based in New York, explains that, typically, friendship is always both physical and digital. Assuredly, this is something we can all find to be true. We all do it, we release our personal information to be seen throughout the virtual universe–even if it’s just a picture of yourself or any slight interaction with another individual.
We can most closely relate this to the “social media friends” we may have. This includes the friends you know from a mutual friend or you went to high school with, but you can’t seem to even remember the last time you’ve spoken to them. Of course, it’s also possible to make friends online with no previous connection.
Connecting through mutual interests is a common practice, especially online. You can see who follows who, what kind of music someone is listening to, or even what kind of photos they might be reblogging on Tumblr.
Be it admiration of a band, television show, or film, these topics can strike up some very interesting conversations. Maple Freud, a 20-year-old music fan, tells me about her own cyber-bonding experience, which all began with a band called Jocelyn.
“I actually became friends with the band through social media, mainly Twitter and Snapchat. They are seriously the greatest people I’ve ever met,” says Freud. “I’ve met so many other amazing people through the band online, you’re just kind of able to form a bond with these people about things that your friends at home may not really be into.”
Certainly, many have had similar experiences to Freud’s whether it was bonding over Doctor Who or a love of whiskey. My experience, however, dealt with a passion for travel and a love for my dog.
Before heading off to college it’s now encouraged to join one of those incoming student Facebook groups. In my case, there was also one for the freshman year study abroad program in which I was going to be participating. Since I was going into college, as well as study abroad, without knowing a single soul, I began to get as active as anyone would in these groups to try and find others with similar interests.
Initially, almost all of us had written one of those tedious, yet surprisingly conversational “10 Facts About Me” posts. I commented on someone else’s who wanted to travel to similar places as me throughout the semester and was also obsessed with her four-legged companion. After speaking for a short while and becoming friends through various social media platforms, I asked if we could be roommates for the year since we would both be going abroad. Long story short, she said yes and is now one of my best friends.
Thank you, Facebook.
On the other hand of the cyber-bonding spectrum, however, perhaps something quite different or serious brought you together with a certain person or group of people. An eating disorder, an abusive relationship, anxiety–you may have found someone who has something in common with you, whether that happens to be good or bad.
Suddenly you have this newfound confidant with which to share your feelings and experiences that you may not necessarily feel comfortable telling other people in your life. It’s no surprise that relationships have become so dominated by the internet. Jurgenson explains why it may be easier to find such confidants online.
“You’re not going to go to the bar and talk about your depression. People will judge you,” says Jurgenson. “So you go online and join a community where people are talking about their anxiety or talking about their depression.”
Alana Massey wrote in the Pacific Standard about subjects like depression, self-harm, and suicide that are found on the “mental health” tag on Tumblr: “When the mere mention of these topics often results in immediate and ham-handed interventions, having digital space to share feelings safely is liberating.”
Admitting your worries and problems is difficult, especially while face-to-face with someone, even if you have a solid relationship with that person. Cyber-bonding is very common and advantageous for those who experience social anxiety for a variety of reasons. This begins with the fear of being disliked or being made a fool of, which can easily be avoided via the internet.
Zipporah Dixon, a 19-year-old college student, brings up an extremely relevant point pertaining to those more introverted than others. “Millennials are always on their phones and the internet to begin with,” Dixon says. “And it is definitely a good tactic for those who are introverted because it’s not overbearing them with social interaction.”
Those who suffer from this social anxiety also find the internet handy to mask their identity or use anonymity to their advantage. In fact, Jurgenson brings up the app Yik Yak, which is designed to post strictly anonymous content. The comfort of anonymity may be why so many people have been posting about their serious issues such as depression and anxiety.
Jurgenson goes on to speak about geographical closeness, and how in today’s society we tend to elect it as the core of not only friendship, but online relationships in general. However, we need to look beyond geographic proximity.
“Geographic proximity is just one variable,” says Jurgenson. “Digital friendships can be all of those things [supportive, intimate, and familial] even if they have a different relationship to that one variable of proximity, I just don’t think our questions should start and end on geographic proximity.”
Twenty-year-old Jordan McIntyre, a Millennial who has often moved around, is a perfect example of Jurgenson’s argument of geographic proximity.
“I’d say online friendship means a lot for people like me who have never really stayed in one place for very long,” McIntyre explains. “With Facebook and Snapchat it’s been really easy for me to stay close to people from home that I’d otherwise never have heard from again.”
Virtual friendships are extremely relevant and common in today’s digital age, though society seems to be very focused on the difference between both online and offline worlds. Friendship is the same all around; no matter what kind of platform you’re using, the qualities of true friendship can be found in a variety of places. Sometimes being online is the most convenient way to connect with people and sometimes it is the only way to stay connected.