My Online Friends ARE My Real Friends

[CN: suicide, depression, being in the closet]

I have a step uncle who refuses to have a phone. Of course, when you read that, I think it’s safe to say you thought I was talking about a cell phone. In fact, this uncle refuses to have even the good old fashioned landline variety. Why? Because if he wants to talk to somebody he’ll just go on over to their house. In his mind, there’s no reason to talk to someone if you can’t do it face to face. I was thinking about this lately and it reminded me of all the times I’ve heard claims that social media, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, et al, are ruining the quality of “true” human social interaction. Frankly, this attitude makes me sick to my stomach.

You see this everywhere. There are “digital cleanse” rituals where you’re supposed to abstain from social media for a certain period of time to interact with the real world. We have news articles constantly pushing the idea that our online interactions don’t constitute “real” human connection. One of my favorite bands even wrote a song about it for their most recent album.

I want to say first off that I’m not entirely unsympathetic to what these folks are getting at. There most certainly can be problematic ways we attach ourselves to social media. I’ve been pretty annoyed several times by being at gatherings where it seems everyone congregated in one place to scroll through Facebook the whole time. I’ve even been guilty of checking my phone far too often when I’m with my girlfriend and making her feel neglected. I’m not advocating for or excusing these things. Let’s be real though, people had ways of ignoring their friends and families well before social media came around.

When you’re a person who can generally expect to be surrounded by people in meatspace who think like you, share your experiences, share your points of view, and are sympathetic to you as a person, it’s very easy to go on about the superiority of “real” human interaction. What if you’re the only queer kid in a small conservative town? What if you’re a teenage atheist in a family whose identity is absolutely wrapped up in their involvement in the church? What if you’re an atheist in a country where it could cost you your life? What if you have questions in an environment where simply asking those questions can get you ejected from your church?

I’m not a person whose life was saved by the internet, but there are many people who have experienced just that. For some in communities of marginalized groups, the internet is the only connection they have to others who share their experiences, think like them, and are sympathetic to their struggles. For these people the internet is not only a vital outlet, but it can very well be the thing that stops a person from ending their own life.

Human beings are social creatures. Surely, there are those of us who are genuinely misanthropic, but for most of us, connections to other people are a vital part of our emotional well being. Some of us, like me, are fortunate enough to have lots of folks surrounding us in real life we can make connections with. Not all of us are so lucky. I’d wager that most of us might prefer to have those connections in real life, but the sad fact is, not everyone has that choice. Constantly hearing those relationships degraded as being shallow or simplistic grates at me to no end.

Social media is a tool. Like any other tool, it is only as good as what we choose to do with it. If you have a hammer, you can kill someone or you can build a house. It’s up to you. Social media is no different. If you’re a person who cares for nothing but how famous you think you are, how many friends you have, or how many likes each of your posts get, chances are you are going to have shallow and largely meaningless interactions with those you encounter online. If you are a person who is genuinely seeking a community, you are likely to find it. Many of the people I hold most dear are people I met initially online and who I maintain mostly online relationships with. These relationships have meant everything to me. I have met people who mentor me, encourage me, offer unconditional love and support, and who have been there for me no matter what I go through. These are people whose lives I care about. They’re often on my mind. I miss them when I don’t hear from them, I celebrate their triumphs, I mourn their losses, and I cry when I lose then. I will not stand for having those relationships denigrated by someone who has no idea what it’s like to want for community.