The Art of Online Friendships

Designed by Emily Zhong

Maybe we can stop thinking of our online interactions as a poor-man’s-substitute.

In Rewired’s first ever podcast, Staff Writer Tanvi Dutta Gupta asks a question we’ve all had to think about: what does it look like to trust someone when they’re not in front of you? No one was prepared last year to suddenly move all their friendships to the virtual world. She talks to three different friends about the shapes their relationships have taken over the last twelve months, from online study sessions to livestreamed weddings.


TANVI: I texted my ex the other day. Which, to be fair, was responding to a message he’d sent me the day before, which was responding to a message I had sent him, a bird I’d seen recently I thought he’d like to know about. Which is a long-winded saying of: my ex and I are on good terms. Really good, honestly, for a high school relationship that marked the first serious commitment either of us had ever made. 

The catch: it was entirely online. We spent a year texting, and met each other five times in all. Only two of those times were when we were actually dating. We asked each other out over text, we told each other I love you.

That our relationship fell apart surprised no one, least of all ourselves. We broke over text, too. And I made a vow that I would never again have an important relationship entirely online. I had missed out on something, I felt, living this big part of my life entirely in texts and screens. 

So you can imagine how annoyed I was last March when we all got sent back home from college. I found myself on my childhood bed staring at my laptop. My most important relationships — romantic or otherwise — were online. It was high school—multiplied. 

Now, it’s been nearly a year of that for all of us. And I’ve been thinking about what we’ve built over the last year across the screens and in the texts and calls. So I reached out to a few friends to ask them what it’s looked like for them the last twelve months. How and why and where they’ve felt close to people without physical presence. How and why and where they shared trust with people online, whether they’d never seen the people before. Or whether before the pandemic, they’d seen them every day.

 Of course, there are a lot of obvious and not-so-obvious differences in online interactions. When we all went back home, I tried to directly replicate a lot of my in-person interactions over call. As did one of my friends, Jessica, who told me about a regular meeting with a friend she tried to transfer online

JESSICA: Throughout the first quarter, we were at Stanford together, we lived down the hall from each other. Every quarter, we’ll have a catch up on everything that went on during the quarter. And then when it came to the end of spring quarter, he was in Singapore, I was at home, and I reached out and was like you know what? We might as well continue this tradition. So we had our conversation of just a long zoom call at the end of spring quarter. At the end of summer and at the end of fall too. Both were good. But I definitely prefer the in person late night conversation. 

TANVI: That’s the thing. A lot of the differences in online interactions are just—worse than in-person interactions. 

TOPAZ WINTERS: if you’re talking people over zoom, it’s like an hour or two in, you’re like, Wow, my eyes really hard. And also, I can literally see the clock as I’m talking to you. So I’m hyper aware of how much time has passed. And also like, I can constantly see myself in like the video screen as I’m talking to you. So like, I’m kind of getting self conscious about that. So let’s end this early, you end it and then it’s like, okay, now I’m sad and alone in my silent room.

TANVI: That’s another friend, Topaz Winters. I wanted to talk to Topaz in particular because they’ve had a lot of experience with this kind of thing, of having entire lives online. 

TOPAZ WINTERS: I started at a publishing house online, kind of with team members around the world when I was 15. And my first book came out, which was like a fully online release when I was 16. And yeah, now I’m the author of two full length poetry collections, one chapbook and a forthcoming book in spring 2020.

TANVI: And though their poetry is raw and vulnerable, in person—

TOPAZ: I’m definitely not someone who explicitly shows a lot of emotion. In terms of a lot of what I feel, I’ll put it in art. I’ll put it in my writing. 

TANVI: But lockdown hit them hard. 

TOPAZ: I was in emergency housing, I was literally completely alone. The only, like, emotional outlet I had was digitally. And that was really a moment where it was like I there are two kind of ways forward here, one of which is, obviously Everyone is scared, everyone is lonely. Do I really want to like add my personal fear and loneliness to that conversation? And the other path was just like, what if I allowed myself this space to feel what I’m feeling and trusted the people that I love and care about to also hold that space? Like, what would that actually look like?

TANVI: For Jessica, it looked like nighttime study calls with a dorm friend. 

JESSICA: When we both went home, we found that our sleep schedules still aligned with each other. I was on the West Coast, he was on the East Coast. And in those hours, he would show me the sunrise from his window. 

TANVI: As I talked to my friends, I found that even though this year sucked on a number of levels, they had also found places of beauty and intimacy and, yes, trust with other people online. It was hard for everyone. 

TOPAZ: You have to kind of say, okay, you know, maybe it’s not just staring each other over zoom screen. I have a friend who is really into making homemade alcohols. And so like she would send me her like alcohol and I would send her like, whatever I was baking like bread or, you know, brownies, or cookies, or cookies, or whatever. And we would meet over zoom, and I would be like drinking her whiskey and she’d be eating my goodies. And that would be like a thing we would share.

TANVI: One friend in particular had to shift one of those life events that’s meant to be the most full of trust and intimacy with the people you’re closest to in person to a livestream. This is Mariam.

MARIAM: It broke my mom, the fact that I was getting married, and she wasn’t there, like it did. And it broke me too.

TANVI: But it provided an opportunity to share the closeness of the moment with people that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

MARIAM: I had people from high school, I hadn’t talked to them for years telling me that they’d watched it. All of my family got to watch it. It gave so many other people access to the joy and happiness and the fun of that day. I think that small wedding that we had just really like perfect. Really cheesy, but it was a really perfect day.

TANVI: It’s not like living life online is a replacement for the trust or closeness of in-person interactions. Mariam is holding an in-person function with lots of food and people as soon as she can. But maybe we can stop thinking of our online interactions as a poor-man’s-substitute.

MARIAM: With the pandemic and everyone having to be isolating and staying at home and working from home and all that, there’s been a lot of more accessible ways of communicating that have been created or brought into the forefront. It’s really sad, because a lot of these accommodations should have been in place for disabled people long before the pandemic started.

TANVI: Topaz talked about one online space they spend a lot of time in—poetry readings and performances. 

TOPAZ: The first thing everybody acknowledges is like, this is not how we wanted to do this. But since this is the way that we have to, this has to be on a screen, let’s make something good out of it. No matter what format we’re doing this in, it’s art.

TANVI: And maybe it’s art shaped in a different way. But it’s still art. 

I think sometimes about what would have happened if my ex and I had dated in person instead of over Skype. If we had done all the normal high school stuff holding hands rather than with emojis. But I don’t know. Maybe it would have been better. Or maybe what we built was suited to what it was and where we were. Physically and digitally. Now, as the end of the pandemic comes into sight—distant sight, sure, but sight nevertheless—the vow I made after we broke up feels a little irrational. Mostly, I’m grateful. My ex and I are friends. Really good friends. We know each other in a way few others do and we have a kind of closeness I won’t ever get with anyone else. And, honestly, I know my friends over the last year in ways I would never have gotten to otherwise. Through sunrises and sunsets. Baked goods and bad days. It’s a love that shows up in different packages. But has the same warmth when unpacked. 


Music and Sounds:
“Alarm clock ticking”, Straget 1
“Lamu”, Xylo-Ziko 2
“Iso booth ambience”, sacco12 3 
“Face to Face (ID 1346)“, Lobo Loco 4
“Tedukedo”, Mello-C 5
“Lowball”, Blue Dot Sessions 6
“Jackbird”, Blue Dot Sessions 7

With thanks to Jessica, Topaz Winters, Mariam Sheikh, and others for their time and energy. 

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