DRMacIver's Notebook

Uploading friendships to the cloud

Uploading friendships to the cloud

I'm sad, so you get a sad post today, sorry.

I basically grew up on the internet. I did not have a lot of friends at school, and lived in a remote village so had few to no local friends, but I had people I talked to online, and that was (possibly literally) a life saver.

Some of these internet friends turned into in person friends, and many more of them I at some point met in person at least once. So the line between online and offline friendships has always been a bit of a blurry one for me. There's definitely no hard and fast internet/offline friendship binary, but a very queer and shifting spectrum.

There was perhaps a bit of a lull in this during university, when I had a relatively constant source of offline friends, but even there I was quite active on university IRC networks and entirely legitimate university file sharing networks that we were definitely only using for sharing Linux ISOs. Many of those people were ones I met in person at the occasional meetup, but they were absolutely online-first friendships with an offline component.

When I first moved to London, online friendships once again became centered, because I didn't know anyone here. This became a bit more balanced as I started to make more offline friendships, but a combination of a long-distance relationship and starting to move more and more of my public brain onto Twitter meant that it was a more even balance between the two.

On top of this, a lot of my best offline friendships have always had a significant online component. We would have long-running conversations - on AIM (remember that?), IRC, google chat, or, more recently, WhatsApp. Almost all of my "real" friendships were maintained through the internet as much as in person.

All of which is to lay some backstory for what was, to me, a rather surprising realisation: it turns out that for many of my friendships, the offline component was load bearing to a far greater degree that I had supposed.

My ability to participate in some of the ongoing conversations that matter most to me has been evaporating recently, and those are ones with people who I was friends with in a way that was very much offline-first. We talked a lot on the internet, long before lockdown made that a necessity, but implicit in that was that it was a continuation of our offline friendship.

In contrast, many of my internet friendships and the conversations associated with them are doing just fine. They tend to ebb and flow with my mood, as always, but they're not evaporating in the same way because they were conversations without any strong implication that we would ever see each other in person - we probably would, and some of them are ones that I expect to turn into offline friendships when those become a thing again - but it was never something that formed a foundation to our friendship.

Some of this is that parts of us are missing, and perhaps it was those parts who were such good friends with each other. The rest of us were friends too, but they weren't necessarily as close. They're the sort of friends who only see each other at parties, or group events, and the pandemic has cancelled those group events.

But some of it, I have to admit, is that in many ways online friendships are just kinda low fidelity, and many of the things that you could overlook when you had the in person foundation become trivial irritations that are enough to put the brakes on the whole thing.

I don't expect this is going to damage the friendships in question per se - we'll figure out a way through it, even if the way is waiting until after the lockdown is over to resume - but in the meantime there is definitely a sense of loss, and it's one that I think is highlighting for me how much more I needed in person contact than I had realised.