know him from the internet.” When I say these words to explain how I made a certain friend, they’re often accompanied by an involuntary pang of embarrassment and can still, in 2018, provoke a raised eyebrow. I suspect these reactions aren’t just leftover from the days when internet relationships were considered nerdy or perverted; there seems to be an enduring belief among some that a friendship is only valid or “real” if it was established in the physical world.
Online dating is losing its stigma thanks to the mainstreaming of apps like Tinder and the widely accepted wisdom that we sometimes need a little help meeting people to date in our increasingly busy lives. But what is recognized far less frequently is that making new friends isn’t easy for everyone either, and technology can be just as useful in that respect.
I’m not talking about a numbers game. Thousands of Instagram or Twitter followers does not equal thousands of meaningful relationships. In fact, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, 150 is the largest number of people you can forge and sustain friendships with, and I’d hazard a guess that most of us could count our closest friends using just our fingers. In the digital world, as in the physical one, quality trumps quantity, and if you’re fortunate, you may find a select few truly valuable connections amid all the likes and retweets.
I count myself lucky that I have. I’m currently planning a trip with my Twitter DM group chat, a wickedly conspiratorial cabal I speak with daily, more regularly than most of my real-life pals or even family. It originated as a matter of logistics: I was visiting London for work and wanted to meet these social media acquaintances for dinner. That was three years ago, and now I couldn’t imagine life without them. We talk about everything, from our workplace crushes to the garbage fire that is politics in 2018 to our favourite Drag Race moments. We lift each other up, offer encouragement and advice, and we talk trash about the men who have wronged us. If that’s not friendship, what is?
It’s not just a figure of speech when I say that my group chat “gives me life.” It’s science. “Social bonds reduce the risk of disease by decreasing blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate,” report Dr. Rebecca McGuire-Snieckus and Nigel Holt. “A lack of close confidants is as harmful to your health as smoking or being overweight. Indeed, people without friends are more likely to die younger. Not only do friendships prolong our lives, they make us happier, too. People who are socially active are less stressed and depressed – they also tend to feel better about their lives and who they are.”
I would argue that in the new digital paradigm, the presence of online friends can be a lifeline; especially as it is often easier to stumble across somebody with similar experiences online. After the loss of a close family member a few years ago, I found myself up late one night, talking about my grief via DM with somebody on the other side of the world who knew exactly what I was going through. This was easier, somehow, than sharing how I felt with the people in my day-to-day life.
The “online disinhibition effect,” a phenomenon coined by psychologist John Suller, lowers our reserves by tricking our brains into not thinking of the person on the other side of the screen as a person. This is commonly cited as a contributing factor to cyber-bullying, but I’ve also found it extremely helpful in facilitating emotional honesty. I can talk about all kinds of personal and embarrassing things when it doesn’t feel as “real” as having a conversation in the flesh.
Even if online relationships never cross over into the physical world, a DM-only friendship still has genuine emotional value. From what I’ve observed over the years in myself and in others, there is a real sense of joy in finding your people online, in discovering a community and realizing you’re not a weirdo, especially if your interests are a little on the niche side, or you’re marginalized and struggle to relate to the people who are geographically closest to you.
When I was younger, growing up gay in a small town, the internet was how I found other LGBTQ people — and that has carried on into adulthood. Today, “Gay Twitter” is my happy place. It’s where I can go and know that people will share my love of certain things and my anger at others; it’s where I can communicate entirely in shorthand without having to pause the conversation to explain to a bystander what certain words mean.
Surrounding myself with similar voices and cultivating an online support network is one of my most cherished acts of self-care, especially as a person whose real-world interactions come with a risk of harassment. Many warn against only following social accounts that mirror our own views — that by doing so we’ll be blind to the truth of the world around us. Indeed, there are very real consequences to only consuming perspectives from an online echo chamber, but missing from that narrative is the safe space the internet can provide for people whose daily lived realities feel like anything but. Founding friendships on a shared identity or belief can serve as a reminder of your humanity, and sometimes such a bond can only be forged via the connective tissue of the internet.
Having a digital sanctuary has made me more energized and willing to fight for what I believe in. My community of like-minded souls doesn’t feel like a “bubble” so much as a source of strength. Because every now and then, I need reminding that I’m not in this alone. To me, that’s the very definition of friendship, whether we’ve met in real life or not.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis
Illustration via Getty Images.