2020’s Silver Lining — Internet Friends
The internet and I are siblings. We grew up together. From message boards on Netscape to follow backs on Instagram, people my age grew up with the internet. I was lucky to have a computer with an internet connection at home in the 90s because my dad worked in technology. My brother and I were given CDs with math and strategy games on them. I got my first email address, which I still use, when I was nine. I still remember my uncle setting it up with me.
But with the ability to connect with people, came the ability to connect with strangers. I still remember the first time someone replied to a chat I posted in a Harry Potter chat room. I used the word holiday and he said I must have meant vacation. That’s the first time I realized that Americans don’t use English the way we Indians do. I was 11 years old when I was caught talking to a boy on MSN messenger. A boy who lived down the road from me. Suddenly the internet was a whole new thing parents needed to pay attention to and worry about.
Over the next few years the dangers of the internet grew and came into the limelight. Cyber crime. Child pornography. Predators in chat rooms. It was a dangerous place. But also over time laws were put into place and we learned to navigate this new territory. We developed internet etiquette. Typing in all caps was screaming. Bold, Underline, and Italics replaced tone. We figured it out. We found our safe spaces. I know people who made their first friends online — on message boards, on Reddit, and Twitter. While social media was in its pre-teens.
I wasn’t one of those people. My life was full. I grew up with a brother and grand parents and cousins and school friends and neighbourhood friends and summer camp pals. I didn’t need the internet to meet new people. Maybe if I had stayed in the same city for college, things would have stayed that way. But I had been accepted into a college on the other side of the world. My first taste of internet friendship came in 2009. Facebook was a few years old and groups were just becoming a thing. I was told there was a group for the Class of 2013 and another one for incoming international students from India. I found my freshman year roommate and first American friend on that group. It was my first taste of making a friend online.
When I left India the internet was the only way I could keep in touch with my friends and family. Over the years some of those friendships faded into internet acquaintances. Some acquaintances became friends because they spent more time online than the others. My Bangalore friends also eventually moved to other cities and countries. By the time I moved back seven years later, I felt alone in the city I grew up in, for the first time in my life. All my friends were internet friends. It was my new normal.
When 2020 rolled around and we were all told to go to our rooms and stay there, my life didn’t change very much. My closest friends were all online anyway. My longest friendships had survived the years through Whatsapp voice notes and video calls. I laughed thinking about how bittersweet it was that I was better prepared for this than most people were. The first month went by calmly as I watched others around me struggle to adapt. As the second month wore on we found new ways to keep living. Instagram live sessions, online classes, and stand up comedy via Zoom became the new normal. My cousins and I all got on the infamous House Party app a few times. I saw everyone on one screen for the first time in years. My school friends set up birthday parties and catch up calls on Zoom. I joined a few, hosted a few, and settled into the routine with everyone else.
With gyms closed I signed up for an online workout. I didn’t think much of it other than that I was nervous about not being able to do push ups. I especially didn’t want to fail at them on camera in front of other people. So I made some jokes via the zoom chat to try and prove that I had a personality even if I didn’t have upper body strength. One girl replied to me and we laughed. She DM’d me on instagram later. I had met her flatmate before. We made a group. A few days later I realized I knew someone else in that class. My childhood friend. I added her to our group. She added her college friend who was also in our 8 pm session. All of us lived in the same city but had never met before. A few classes and DMs later, two more girls were added, this time from different cities. After every class we’re on that group for at least half an hour, talking and laughing. Of the seven of us in that group, I’ve only met two IRL (in real life).
It’s been two months and we have inside jokes and gossip. They’ve seen me through two major panic attacks. I’ve opened up about my body dysmorphia. We talk about the struggles of dating. We send each other videos and voice notes and photos of us being ridiculous, of people on our zoom call being ridiculous. They’re my internet friends. For the first time in eleven years, I have new internet friends.
On twitter and instagram I’m DMing and collaborating with people I’ve never met before, only because we have the same interests or sense of humor. I just video chatted with an internet friend for forty five minutes to talk about our shared love of electronic music. I don’t know if or when I’ll meet these people in real life. I’ll be really sad if I never get a chance to. I would love to see the light bouncing off their faces and hear their laughs coming through the air instead of through a speaker. I would love to see what their body language is like, how they eat, how they drink, how they dance when they’re drunk. I want to laugh with them IRL and go to concerts with them instead of describing the experience of a music festival over a call.
I’ve heard of love stories that started on the internet, on dating apps, on message boards and in chat rooms. But now I want to write a story of friendships that started the same way. Not all love is romantic love. Not all longing is sexual. I just want to be in the same room as my internet friends. In a room that isn’t separated by screens and cables.
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