Before the coronavirus arrived ― back when I used to be able to leave my house ― I had my “real-life friends” and my “online friends,” two categorically different groups of people in my mind. My real-life friends were the people I didn’t necessarily see every single day, but with whom I had regularly shared physical experiences at some point in my life: dinners, movies, trips to exotic places. These were people who had seen the hardware of my life, so they knew me from the inside out. I measured that qualitatively. For me, time spent together, physically, had equated to a certain brand of intimate knowledge.
Friendships are sacred to me. I have been a close friend with many of the same people for the majority of my life and most of those friendships span decades ― some over 30 years. We have shared in countless joys and losses. We have seen one another succeed and fail. We have watched each other wed and divorce. We have been there for each other as we’ve buried parents.
In addition to those friends I’ve made and kept from childhood, college and my days working in restaurants, I also have a large network of online friends ― people I share political jokes with or with whom I talk about topics as varied and personal as food or parenting. Online, you can curate your passions, separate your individual interests and make choices. You can find the people who are most like you, or who live most like you, and there’s a certain freedom and intimacy that comes with that understanding.
There are all kinds of niche communities on the internet, and some can help us express our true selves in a way that we might not be able to do often — or maybe even ever — in the real world. That’s partly why I love being online: The internet is a place to air grievances, to be funny, to express knee-jerk reactions. It allows me to commiserate with others who are like me and to offer up pieces of my life and myself to people who really get what I am putting out there while sharing parts of myself in ways I might not otherwise in my offline life.
Before the events related to the coronavirus unfolded over the past few weeks, I never realized how important my cyber friendships really were, or what they were actually offering me. Sure, I appreciated, at least in a surface way, what I was gaining from them: They provided a sounding board, for one. When my husband didn’t want to hear me complaining about the primary election anymore, my internet friends were always around to listen. When my friends without kids didn’t want to know about my son’s latest diaper blowout, there was Facebook group specifically for moms that did. When I made a picture-perfect chicken that no one in my offline life seemed all that interested in, someone from my internet community was there to share in my culinary triumph.
Still, I mostly saw these virtual relationships as secondary to my “real” friendships. I wasn’t about to grab dinner with the guy messaging me about how he, too, couldn’t stand Bernie Sanders. But it was nice to hear the voice of someone who agreed and shared my own thoughts. Despite how much I was receiving from my online community, I failed to recognize that I was building genuine relationships, and that I was gaining much more than just an opportunity to blow off steam.
I am now essentially a shut-in, since I am considered high-risk for serious coronavirus symptoms because I suffer from asthma, lifelong respiratory issues, and two recent bouts of bronchitis, from which I am still in recovery, and I also live in a highly infected state and community. And because of the sudden and unexpected inability to socialize offline, I have come to realize how important my online community is ― and always has been ― to me. In short, my online community is my community.
I’m realizing how much of myself I gave to [my online friends], even before most of us were self-isolating, and how much they’ve given me over the years and continue to give me in my current time of need.
I used to think that online life, however immediately gratifying, was nothing but surface tension ― an incomplete or even dishonest version of reality. In truth, I talk to my online friends every day now ― some of them more than my “real life” friends ― because there’s no longer anywhere to go, and because I’m realizing how much of myself I gave to them, even before most of us were self-isolating, and how much they’ve given me over the years and continue to give me in my current time of need.
My online friends and I may not ― and may never — meet offline, but I don’t see my college friends or childhood friends in the flesh all that often and I don’t know when I will again. When you think about it, in a world that we’re now experiencing mostly virtually, is there really a difference between the friends we make online and the friends we once had in the so-called real world? What’s more, as we all look for new and more ways to be intimate at a time when we’re increasingly being sealed off from each other, our virtual friends are even more important than they were just a few weeks ago. These relationships that we’ve formed and grown via our computers and phones may be just the thing that helps us survive this unprecedented and difficult time.
Online friendships, of course, don’t necessarily sprout from the same shared experiences, like childhood or college, that offline friendships do. There’s no physical-world history there, so to some people that might mean these internet relationships are less complex or less worthy. But in the age of the coronavirus, everything is complex, and at the same time so much is simple. I’ve now discovered that what truly matters is being known and seen and understood by someone, and we can do all of that virtually. Sure, it may take a bit more work, and it certainly isn’t the same as being in the room with someone, but connecting online can be amazingly therapeutic and it can offer us some of the things we need right now to be a little (or a lot) less lonely.
And maybe, when we’re holed up with no one but ourselves, the most important thing is truly how well we’re able to connect with others.
I’m also learning new ways to communicate and be vulnerable and to express myself because of my online relationships, which in turn broaden and deepen all of my experiences ― virtual or not. Even better, these are tools that I can use with my “real life” friends, who are now, it should be said, online friends, too.
Ultimately, my online friends are my real friends. I may never go to their weddings or their parents’ funerals. There may never be a long and complicated history, the way there might be with the offline friends who have known me longer and, in some ways, better. But the whole world is changing and strangers are becoming friends and friends are becoming strangers. And I am seeing the evolution myself, as the people I may have once thought of as less important or less intimately acquainted with me become just as relevant as the people who have held a stake and a place in my everyday life.
Except there really is no more “everyday life” ― not for me and not for anyone else. My online community is as real and as valuable and offers me many of the same things as the friendships I’ve had offline for 30 years. It’s too bad it took a pandemic to teach me this, but regardless, I’m glad it did. I’m grateful to have more friends ― no matter where or how they exist ― to offer me comfort, guidance and laughter during these uncertain times.
Hannah Selinger is a freelance food, wine and travel writer and mother of two based in East Hampton, New York. Her work has appeared in Eater, Glamour, The Independent U.K., The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, The Kitchn, Slate, Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Wine4Food, The Daily Beast, Heated by Bittman, Al Jazeera, Refinery29, Thrillist, Fodor’s, Business Insider and numerous other national and regional publications. She has work forthcoming in Airbnb Magazine, United Airlines’ Hemispheres, and American Airlines’ American Way.
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