If the internet was a person, she’d be Lindsay Lohan: started out a prodigy, fell from grace, but ultimately much better than her reputation suggests.
We blame the world wide web for all manner of human sins: depravity, sexual perversion, sexism, racism, hate crimes. It has grown particularly popular to slander the internet for its role in our ever-growing loneliness epidemic – which, incidentally, might be the great modern public health crisis.
Scientists semiregularly release studies that suggest a correlation between social media and loneliness, between Instagram and low self-esteem, between Facebook and social isolation. But even they have to admit we do not know what came first: the loneliness or the social media.
Does Twitter make us lonelier, or do we pick up our phones when we’re already lonely, looking for some kind of connection?
I’d like to swing by and defend the internet for its friendship-enabling, loneliness-diminishing qualities. I’ve just spent a year researching friendship for my book, The Friendship Cure, which is about precisely this: the nexus between loneliness and friendship. Eight-three thousand, three hundred and thirty-nine words later, I feel like I know a little bit about it.
I’ve spoken to countless people, both my own friends and strangers from the internet, who would simply not have access to the same social life without social media. I know a woman who met all three of her bridesmaids – the women she cherishes most in the world – on Twitter. She says she feels like her most authentic self when she’s online and the friends she’s made there are her closest allies. (Incidentally, we met on Twitter, did this interview over pistachio and blueberry buns and now we’re also friends).
This is perhaps exactly the point: we can no longer quite so easily distinguish between our online selves and what we’d call our IRL selves. We are becoming confident enough to merge our online and offline selves as we realise that social media is an important platform for friendship – Cambridge Analytica notwithstanding.
My best friends in the world live in Melbourne, New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans. I am, at any time, a minimum of 5,000km away from them. Catch-ups over brunch or rosé are not possible for us. And so, we spend the majority of our friendship exchanging stories and dancing lady emojis on WhatsApp.
Our group thread has become this glorious mishmash of the trivial and the meaningful, home to career advice, sexism avoidance tips, dog pictures, memes, moral support, dating debriefs and proclamations of love. I am indignantly distressed by anyone who would suggest our largely online friendship is in any way less valid than people who have the luxury of sharing oxygen in the same physical place. We live in a world where technology is omnipresent and we may as well be hooked up intravenously to wifi; this is simply the way we operate now.
Besides which, when it comes to friendship, we can now sing that popular refrain: “There’s an app for that.” Befriending apps are popping up all over the market, adapting the Tinder model of meeting someone online then following up with an in-person meeting. There’s Bumble BFF, the female-lead dating app on friendship mode. There’s Hey! Vina, designed to facilitate “IRL” socialising. There’s Huggle on friendship mode and in the UK and US, a “Tinder for mums” called Peanut, designed to alleviate loneliness for new mamas.
The clever thing about so many of these apps is they use the very thing we blame for our disconnection as a species – technology – to bring us back together. Downloading an app specifically to make new friends takes away the ambiguity of usual social interaction and reduces our chances of rejection – if you’re on a friendship app, you’re obviously open to making new friends – which should enable us to be more vulnerable and open with each other. This is lovely and empowering for the average person, sure, because social interaction is hard for anyone, especially as an adult. But think how many people friendship-via-tech might particularly help: introverts, people with disabilities that make it difficult to leave the house or even speak, deaf people, people with mental health problems, people with autism, people who find social interaction terrifying.
If we use it wisely, technology has the most glorious capacity to help us solve the loneliness epidemic and find each other again. The internet can be a vicious, alienating place, yes – but it could also be just the thing to help us revive friendship.
- The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver is out now through Harper Collins. Kate Leaver will be launching the book in Sydney, at Berkelouw Paddington on 5 April and Mosman Library on 11 April
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