How Social Media Warped My Understanding of Friendship
08.01.17
Illustration by Juliana Vido; follow her on Instagram @julianavido.

Like many parents before them, mine were fond of assuring me that whatever social drama I endured in high school wouldn’t matter in the long run. After all, I’d “never see those people again.” They had no way of knowing just how untrue that old adage would become — not only for me, but my whole generation (and eventually, theirs).

Now, over a decade later, I’m friends with my third-grade crush on Facebook. Several former high school teachers regularly chime in on posts that I share. The idea that we meet people, hang out with them for a few years and then carry on feels like a myth.

What’s nice is that, because we’re so connected, friendships don’t seem as likely to fade away. Yet while I may be in constant touch with everyone from childhood pals to close friends, it’s in totally superficial ways. Social media is a convenient supplement when you can’t give a friend IRL attention — but is that adequate? Sometimes I get so caught up in my own life I pat myself on the back for leaving a nice comment when I should probably have made a phone call or planned a visit instead.

This habit developed over time: I graduated college, worked more jobs than I can remember and moved just as often. With so many peripheral responsibilities, socializing began to feel like both a chore and a guilty pleasure. “Staying in touch” took a back seat. Author Tim Kreider described this in The New York Times as the ‘busy’ trap:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider wrote. And busy, indeed I was, devoting only the smallest amount of energy toward maintaining friendships and replacing worthwhile relationships with other responsibilities. As time wore on, I felt increasingly unfulfilled in the best friend realm.

The truth was, I had a whole handful of reliable girls on call, if only I’d just take the time to reach out. These were the very same ones who’d made several trips to see me, yet I never dealt with the hassle of returning the favor. I had a growing list of excuses mentally stowed away to justify why: time, energy, the belief that my city was more worth visiting than theirs. Snobby, I know, but there I was. And where I was, exactly, was kind of lonely.

“I miss you” texts were sent at least once a month. “When are you coming again?” I asked each of my best girlfriends as seasons slipped by. Each time, the response was virtually the same: “It was so much fun last time. I’m not sure!” Each time, I felt a little more deflated.

I liked their selfies, their posts about finishing school, the articles they shared. Everything. But the reality of the situation was, I’d reduced our interactions to the lowest common denominator, substituting a phone call with compliments on Instagram. I was not giving back in any meaningful way, and I was paying a price for it, growing more isolated as time went on.

I grew up glued to books and movies like Anne of Green Gables and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, stories that touted the idea of “kindred spirits,” or friendships that had some sort of fated, soulmate aspect to them. From them, I adopted the idea that if friendships were meant to be, they’d just work out, somehow. It’s taken a while to sink in, but I’m finally appreciating that this approach to friendship is just as fantastical an idea as “happily ever after.” Friendships, much like romantic relationships, require effort and nurturing.

I’ll be the first to argue that social media has been a total boon for the art of communication, but it took me embarrassingly long to realize that “liking” and commenting were not a valid way to nurture my friendships — especially when my friends were demonstrably willing to spend time, money and energy to nurture their friendship with me. If I wanted these friendships that I cared so much about to last, I had to learn to put in the effort. Acting as though my responsibilities were more important than theirs would not cut it. I’m no saint for realizing this, but I’m working on it, and I’m lucky to have some very patient friends.

Now, I remind myself that an Instagram like is just that: an Instagram like. It doesn’t replace phone calls or girls’ weekends away together. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg may say, relying on social media to stay connected is not, in fact, a sustainable way to maintain a friendship. And while I’m still as tuned-in as ever, I’m going out of my way to tend to my IRL friendships the way that they should be tended to: in real life.

Monica Busch is a Massachusetts-born writer, currently based in New York. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @somethingmonica.

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  • Rachel Dlugatch

    I relate to this sooo much- I also crave the kinds of close friendships in those films and feel like I don’t have them as much as I used to. My friends are scattered all over the place–so many different countries, states, cities, time zones… it’s a challenge. How do other people try to maintain these friendships other than through social media, the kinds of friendships that can’t easily be tended to irl? I’ve recently started sending handwritten letters, but I’m not sure what else to do. Even though they’re often short, I still think that it shows a kind of thoughtfulness that a “like” or casual fb message can’t accomplish. Anyone else have thoughts?

    • streats

      I’m also geographically distanced from most of the important people in my life. It’s been 12 years since all the people I care most about have been in local proximity of me. Ever since moving country for college, then again for work, then again for family, there’s always been a subset of loved ones I’ve had to leave behind, and it becomes a challenge to maintain those ties. With that said, I don’t like to force things, and I let friendships naturally fade if they can’t go the distance. I’m the kind of person who puts a lot into my friendships emotionally/intellectually, and I know I expect a lot of the same in return. Sometimes when people don’t meet those expectations I find myself scaling back the commitment I put in, and accepting that the friendship might serve a different purpose than the one I thought it would, or could.

      Handwritten letters are nice, although I never really know what to say that they won’t already know, and don’t want to bear too much of my soul in case they don’t respond and I feel ridiculous, ha.

      I’ve said this in my main comment but I think substance counts for more than form. It sounds obvious but some of the examples of great “showing up” from friends that I’ve encountered recently have been on or because of social media. I post a lot of my environmental/zero-waste lifestyle on my Instagram, and it makes me quite vulnerable to feeling hoity-toity or sanctimonious, but last week a friend sent me a really genuine private message thanking me for all the information I share and asking me for advice. We were previously co-workers, and only casually acquainted at that (we worked in different offices), and it meant the world to me that they reached out, and the feeling that maybe we have an opportunity to form a deeper connection through this shared interest, from across the world.

      Sorry I don’t have much advice just a lot of rambling thoughts!

      • What you said really resonates with me. Like you, I’ve also recently experienced some pretty major connections/re-connecting with people through social media. I started a YouTube channel about a month ago and have been *overwhelmed* by the number of people who have messaged me about the videos– often friends I haven’t seen or spoken to in years, others are acquaintances who live in my town but I never really got to know. I suppose it’s one of the few times where I felt like social media has fostered deeper connections with my friends. I’m glad to hear you’re experiencing something similar with your environmental/zero-waste lifestyle. I’m not sure if you’ve found this, but I’ve found that my videos have allowed other people to open up in ways they may not have, and it’s really allowed us to have more intimate conversations.

        I also feel the same way about writing letters!! I’ve just gotten some postcards, but what do you say in about 5 sentences? Still, I kind of think it’s the thought that counts and friends tend to enjoy receiving something. 🙂

        • streats

          That’s so great that your videos are creating these new opportunities to re/connect with people you already know! I definitely do find that people come out of the woodwork and chime in on things I’m posted about, where I never thought they had any interest in that.

          I also find it a really good way to test my vulnerabilities – if people ignore it, you lose nothing, but if they react positively, it’s so worth the risk of putting yourself out there. I like playing video games but I often feel like an impostor, but recently I’ve found that if I post about a game I’m playing currently, or ask people what games they’d recommend if I liked XYZ, it’s amazing when people suddenly get really excited to talk about it and a whole discussion gets going. Seeing the cross-section of people who contribute – former colleagues, friends of friends I met on vacation, the brother of a college friend… all coming together from different parts of my life to share information of value. It really makes for an interesting dynamic sphere of people.

          I wrote in another comment about how I’m trying to not post everything I’m doing in life on social media, and keep some things just for me, or choose specifically who I tell. When I write handwritten letters or postcards, sometimes I like to add a little “secret” – maybe what book I’m reading or something I’m planning to do soon that I haven’t told anybody else about. It could be something really trivial but it helps me feel like it’s a genuine and unique conversation, it kind of expands my life in a way. Maybe give it a go and see how it feels!

  • kate

    i literally made a disqus account to comment because i agree with this so much! I am 25 and had this exact realization recently as well. several friends moved away, and months later i was lamenting that we felt distant– i hadn’t picked up the phone to call them ONCE. i felt guilty and lazy, and i knew i was getting into a pattern i would regret (not to be overly dramatic) but maybe for the rest of my life?? relationships require not constant communication but i think DELIBERATE communication. Sometimes calling people can feel like an imposition on them (bc there are so many other “easier” ways to communicate)– but i would rather my friends think i’m annoying (in a good way) than think that i take them for granted.~*~*~*

    • streats

      I definitely agree re not constant but deliberate. I never call people anymore because most of my friends live in different timezones, or I’m not familiar enough with their daily routine to know if they tend to be available at that time. I also don’t like putting people on the spot – I’d much prefer to send them a message letting them know I’m thinking about them and hey would you like to grab dinner next week? and then let them consider it on their own time.

  • I feel like we’re going through exactly the same thing. It’s like you read my mind.

    I’ve also been moving a lot, and ever since high-school, i’ve increasingly lost touch with some of my greatest friends, even though we talk “every so often” on Facebook, and are planning meet ups NEXT YEAR. YEAR!!! Our “busy” lives get in the way, and sometimes it feels like there is no way around it. I’m hoping by the time I officially graduate, I’ll have more time & money to go see them – even though we’re in different countries.

    Anyway, moral of the story is, as you said it — friendships, especially those that you really care about, NEED to be nurtured IRL!!

    Thanks for this article. You said it so well!

    Meg @ its.meg-ramsay.com

    • streats

      I was in a close group of 5 friends a few years ago – we all met through work and would go for dinner, movies, drinks, brunch, etc. It was great for a while and then one moved to California. We created a Facebook group so we could all get updates from the girl who moved, and we also used it to plan stuff and share follow-up thoughts on conversations had over wine. Then another girl moved to California, so those two were hanging out over there and the three of us were still hanging out here. Then one moved to London, and I left the company, and eventually the Facebook group became a bit of a guilty obligation to post a “life update” every few months, once a year…

      I have another group of friends also that I met through that job, and after one of the 4 moved to the US, we arranged a roadtrip for the next time he was back in Ireland. Then another guy moved back to Sweden, and we arranged a roadtrip down the East Coast of the US. Now I live in London, so we’re all in 4 different countries. We keep talking about our next roadtrip but yeah, it’s like “okay so which year will people be free for 2-3 weeks?” It’s long-game friendship, and I’m okay with that. I don’t think the timing matters so much as what you do with the time you have together.

  • Rachel

    This post really hit hard, I can relate so much! I feel like I’ve lost touch with my closest and oldest friends being so “busy” with work, school and boyfriends. I often think that maybe those friendship have just run their course because even though we’ve known each other forever we really don’t have much in common anymore. However, I’ve also lost touch with my best friends from university that I have so much in common. Everyone moving around the world made it so difficult to connect. With all these technologies at our disposal it should be easy to keep up with everyone and connect but it really does take effort to send a quick message, plan a Skype date or have a girls night.

    • streats

      I’ve often felt the same way about old friendships having nothing in common anymore. While I’m really committed to “active” friendships, I am also quite cut-throat and realistic when I realise that a connection isn’t what it used to be. I used to meet up with my high school friends for drinks every Christmas when we were all home, and I grew to resent/dread it because all we’d do was rehash old memories and private jokes and then spend 5 minutes summarising what we were doing with life. It didn’t feel like living in the present and eventually I just stopped going. It never mattered.

  • Adrianna

    The best part about social media is that it’s voluntary

  • Emily

    I agree with all of this- I miss the days of spending hours chatting about nothing on the landline. I’m having a weird, opposite problem right now though. I’m in a kinda weird, tense place with a good friend, and get reminded of all my mad/hurt feelings whenever she posts on social media. I don’t want to unfollow because 1. it feels drastic and 2. I have a lot of hope we could reconcile things and don’t wanna burn that bridge, but it’s also so painful to see her posts! I’m not sure what to do. I think in an age before social media this wouldn’t have sucked so much.

    • Twitter and Facebook make it really easy to “unfollow” with your friend remaining none the wiser. I wish insta had a feature like this. I have been in your situation before and it is a hard pill to swallow. I hope you guys do reconcile!

      For what it’s worth, my friend unfollowed me (I realized and then unfollowed her) and when we eventually did reconnect, it was never mentioned. We both quietly re followed each other and everything was fine.

    • streats

      I’m going through something similar. I’m in two minds as to whether I want to work to repair this friendship or cut them off completely – right now I’m kind of ghosting them and I feel bad about it but it’s the best way I can handle it right now.

      You could always do it, and if they say something, just say you’re reevaluating your use of social media and have unfollowed a bunch of people to try and curate your feed towards a certain interest of yours (like I recently unfollowed everything on Twitter except accounts related to one or two areas I wanted to use it productively for, because my feed was so noisy I kept getting distracted by silly social stuff instead of activism/news/whatever). It might work, it might not. Otherwise, as Alice says, Twitter and Facebook make it easy to hide/mute people temporarily — Instagram not so much, but again you could use the same excuse (“I decided to only follow photography/art accounts for inspiration” or whatever)

  • alchemy

    It’s sobering for me to realize how many friends — and even a brother — have never once spent the time, money, and effort to visit me after I moved from my home state 25 years ago. Sure, I had more reason to visit them more frequently; but barring lack of money and time, is that really a reason to not *once* in 25 years visit me? I’ve suggested it in the most non-pressured way many times. Then there are the friends who *have* spent the time, money, and effort to visit, and that means everything to me.

    Kudos, Monica, for this enlightened piece of self-reflection. That you’ve come to this realization now, this early in your life, will stand you in good stead.

    • streats

      As a perpetual nomad I feel exactly the same way. Very few of my friends came to visit me when I moved to Dublin from Paris. There were a couple of occasions where friends happened to be in Dublin, and we met up, but I was never the primary reason for the trip. I didn’t ever have that expectation of people, but once I had that realisation, it did make me think. With that said I am pretty bad at “bringing people with me” when I move. My circle of friends tends to be very intimate and intense until I don’t live there anymore, and then I move on. It sounds harsh but I accept it as the reality of life that I’m not always going to be a priority once I’m no longer in someone’s life on a daily basis. I agree it does feel great when people make the effort – a friend of mine who had moved back to Sweden showed up on our doorstep as a surprise when he knew we were throwing a Christmas party. It was the best thing ever! And next week my best friend from Dublin is coming to visit me (I now live in London; I told you – perpetual nomad) and I am SO EXCITED

  • mrinalini babbar

    I whole heatedly agree with this soo much. Staying in touch through social media , shouting to the world about what you are upto is not the best idea to vocalize or express yourself. It can wreck and damage you in ways you will not be aware of till realisation dawns upon you. Although I have not grown up with social media on a daily basis, I did however feel it’s constant negatives and downsides while being a user on it . Relying on social media is welcoming isolation which is a direct way into depression.

    • streats

      I have to disagree with you on a lot of what you say. I believe it’s all about how you use it. I can’t think of anything healthier than proudly expressing who you are and what you’re doing with your life, and whatever medium works for people to do that is great. What matters in my opinion is whether it’s genuine. While I would agree that using social media to try to appear perfect or craft a false image of yourself solely for the consumption of others is not healthy, there are so many possibilities that the internet can offer to forge connections and build communities, and many people who suffer from social isolation or depression find solace and support and confidence in the communities they interact with online. I mean look at us all here, in different parts of the world, coming together to share opinions and stories and connect on shared lived experiences! Wonderful!

  • Lil

    It wasn’t until recently that I too realized that friendships don’t just magically work themselves out…

    “Friendships, much like romantic relationships, require effort and nurturing.”
    Thus quote struck a chord because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much time and effort I, myself, put into friendships. I’ve also been reevaluating which friendships I need to take a step back from and which ones I need to invest more in.

    It does hurt to realize how shitty of a friend I’ve been and how some true friends aren’t so true. But it’s better to walk away than waste more time and energy on friendships that aren’t healthy and balanced.

    Also, “80% of friendship is just showing up sometimes.” 🙂

    • streats

      I’m also taking time to review which friendships deserve my attention. I’m very much an all-or-nothing person when it comes to relationships so it can be quite difficult when I realise someone isn’t giving as much as I am, or that they’re actually really toxic.

      I’m trying to evaluate what’s important for me from the people in my life – I was talking about this with someone recently and they said something about choosing to have people in their life. I thought that was really important and useful as a reminder that you make a choice to keep people in your life, so that choice should align with your values.

      I’m also trying to think about what kind of person I want to be and challenging myself if I am as good of a person/friend as I think I am. That second one is harder to do, especially without feedback from others, which is also hard to ask for without seeming self-involved or putting pressure on.

  • I couldn’t agree with this more, we’re so caught up with social media now and forget to go on real life adventures! xx

    • streats

      Go on real life adventures and use social media to enhance your experiences if that brings you joy and connections!

  • Cassandra Littlewood

    I’ve been thinking about this so much! Not only can we reduce our interactions to likes but I think we can also prolong relationships on social media that were meant to fizzle out. Is it really natural that I still know the details of the lives of random girls I went to school with in middle school? This may sound TERRIBLE but social media has made it so easy to keep in contact with SO many people that otherwise would have naturally faded from my life. It’s a little weird, a little cool, the dynamics of friendships are changing so much.

  • Julia

    staying off of social media for a while really made me reach out to people more because i was genuinely curious as to what my closest friends were up to, and not just passively viewing, liking and commenting on their photos on my timeline! so that was a good way of regaining some human connection, and I love the element of surprise when someone tells you about a cool trip or project they’ve been working on and you get to learn all the details from them directly, not from their online persona!

    • streats

      I’ve been doing the flipside of that – trying not to post everything that I’m doing, keeping some projects just for me, or just for certain people I feel like telling. I get a lot less of the broken record feeling like I’m telling someone something they already know about me

      • Jules

        love that!! its def refreshing to not feel like you’re repeating information that’s irrelevant because someone has already seen and inferred what you’re doing/how you’re doing based on social media

  • Camila Restrepo

    My birthday was in March and one of my really good college friends legit suprise by calling me! (I say suprise because she had change her phone number and I didn’t know it). I cannot tell you how moved I was by it! We talked for an hour. That same week, I talked to two other friends on the phone and it felt amazing. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to make someone feel good or to catch up with a friend— a simple call suffices. Or use social media but in a different aka actually send a private message asking them how they are (really how they are and not just “how are you? “good and you?” “good, busy with work” THE END).

    • streats

      This. While I like a good long chinwag on the phone every now and again, sometimes it’s just not a good time and I don’t feel like I can commit fully to it (if I’m on my way somewhere, making dinner, doing laundry, whatever) but if someone pings me a message with a genuine sentiment, I’ll often get into a long chat with them that leaves me feeling really great.

  • What an important and articulate message, Monica — I appreciate your sharing your own vulnerability to help the rest of us realize that we, too, have probably neglected important relationships. I’m an evangelist for personal handwritten notes, too, but there’s still no substitute for picking up the phone or stopping by for a visit. Genuine connection with others is, I believe one of four essential life connections (the others being with God, with self, and with nature) and we ignore it at our peril.

    • streats

      I moved country recently and every time I do so, I go through my box of letters to try and downsize what I need to haul. I do miss writing letters and have started doing so again recently. There’s certainly an art to it, and not having that instant validation that they received or read it is quite nerve-wracking. Did they get it? Did they appreciate it or did they think it was weird? Are they going to write back or just set it aside? I sometimes feel silly sending someone a Facebook message asking if they got my postcard or note in the mail!

      There are, however, very few people in my life I could just pick up the phone and call or stop by for a visit. Probably my parents or sisters would be the only people I could telephone for a conversation, and since most of my friends live in different countries, stopping by unannounced is a pretty big risk! I do believe we can have genuine connection with others through digital means whether that’s text messages or Skype video calls – what counts is the substance, not the form – but a healthy balance of all is preferable.

  • streats

    Hmm, I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg has ever suggested people “rely” on Facebook to maintain friendships, more that it be a way to *complement* them – like you said, “Social media is a convenient supplement when you can’t give a friend IRL attention”, keyword being supplement, not replacement. The internet is what you make it, y’all.

    Someone I used to be close friends with before she moved away once accused me of relegating our friendship to likes and comments because she was always the first to reach out and I never seemed to want to “catch up” anymore. She said she wondered if I still valued the friendship like she did. While I could see why she felt that way, it really hurt me because those things don’t mean value in a friendship for me. I don’t care if you never call to say happy birthday, I care if I could trust you to be my “in case of emergency” contact. I’m fine if you bail on my graduation party if you’re the one who encouraged me to apply to the Masters program I always talked about. I don’t mind if you like all my vacation Instagrams instead of joining me on the trip, if I know you’d check in on my elderly father if I asked you to, Do we help each other grow professionally, creatively, intellectually? Do you hold me to the values you know are important to me, not because you care about those things, but because you know I do? Like, what’s the point of showing up physically if you can’t show up emotionally?

    By the way, that friend who didn’t feel I valued her friendship, once convinced me to fly to her city for a Galentine’s weekend, and then ditched me for a date. Just because someone proactively seeks face-to-face interaction with you, doesn’t inherently mean they respect your time and presence.