THE BEST FRIENDS YOU’VE NEVER MET
The Internet gives us what we need, when we need it—groceries, dates, and now, our pals. Could these friendships of convenience be deeper than the ones we share in person?
Could internet friendships be as substantial as real life ones? We have a success story that will turn you into a believer of the power of virtual pals.
Three years ago, Hala Sabry and Melissa Reid* were strangers leading parallel lives: Hala, then 34, was an ER doctor in Southern California; Melissa, also 34, was a pediatrician in New York City; both were struggling to get pregnant with their first child. In an online infertility message board, on a thread about how hard it is to see babies everywhere, Hala confessed, “I work in an ER, and it can be frustrating.” Melissa instantly replied: “Try being a pediatrician.”
The exchange was a revelation for the pair: Neither had friends, much less fellow doctor friends, who were also grappling with infertility. “It was an understood sisterhood,” Melissa says. They started private-messaging, and, after about two months, graduated to phone calls and Facetime, bonding over giving themselves hormone shots and treating pregnant patients who didn’t want to be parents. Right away, “we spoke like we had known each other forever,” Melissa recalls. * Names have been changed.
In the years that followed, Hala went on to have three children, and Melissa, two. “I could reach out to Melissa, and never feel like she was judging me,” says Hala. Inspired by the power of their cross-country online friendship, Hala formed the Physician Mums Group on Facebook in 2014, but now they’ve moved their group to a website: mypmg.com. Looking back, Hala says, “Melissa and I havebeenthroughitalltogether.”
Well, maybe not all— because Hala and Melissa have never met in person. With busy careers and families, they’ve yet to squeeze in the long-distance trip, though they do hold video playdates with their kids. They’re just two among the new wave of women who, through fate and Facebook, are finding confidantes online. In fact, friend-finder app Meetme revealed in a new survey of 11,000 global users that 65 percent of women in the US have an online friend who they consider “close” and “can share pretty much anything with” but have never physically hung out with.
A CLICK AWAY
The digital revolution has changed how we define what constitutes “meaningful friendship,” says William Rawlins, PHD, a professor of communication studies at Ohio University and author of The Compass of Friendship, who has studied the topic for three decades. “People are finding their online friends more tailored to how they’re living.” So instead of literal face time, “we’re placing a lot of value on availability, convenience and nonstop connection,” he explains. Think about it: These days, trying to set a brunch date with an IRL friend can feel harder than getting Adele tickets, and even when you do make a plan, it’s all too easy to bail by text.
Online pals, however, are überavailable for quick, highly focused chats—but with no pressure to fit another coffee into your already congested ical. With that stress out of the picture, 47 percent of people with online friends feel free to “talk” to them in some form every day, according to data from Meetme. (“Talk” is in quotes for a reason, as the study definition of talk included texting, emailing, chatting and other forms of communication.)
That steady, convenient contact is a key factor in how quickly these online friendships develop: Youngclose adult novelist Anna Breslaw, 29, has never met her Internet bestie Emily Henry, 26, a sci-fi romance author, but they rapid-fire-email each other so often—sharing anxiety about their books and relationship gripes—that their chains often hit the 100-message mark (far more often than they email with other buds, both say).
Their marathon e-banter began last year when Anna was publishing her debut novel, Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here. Emily, a fan of Anna’s funny Twitter feed, sent her a direct message to congratulate her; Anna then read Emily’s new book, The Love That Split the World, and was so moved by it that she ended up crying on the subway. “In real life, when I grab coffee with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, there’s a lot of Bs’ing before you get to the meat of what’s happening in your life,” Anna says. But online, with Emily, “the fat was trimmed from day one. I’ll send her an email that opens with, ‘I’m freaking.’”
virtual girlfriends like Anna and Emily feel their friendship is every bit as legitimate as the ones they share with sorority sisters or work wives. According to Rawlins, research subjects have consistently told him that a close friend is “someone you can talk to—and who will listen—and someone you can depend on”—the type of friend “that if your car broke down at 2 am, you could call her and she’d be there.”
For Anna and Emily, reaching that level of trust and loyalty came easier than with some in-person pals: They opened up and listened to each other in their brutally honest emails; the added comfort of getting deep via writing, which can feel less daunting than talking face-to-face, helped. And they were there for one another, at all hours of the day, with instant replies. “Anna knows things about me that I’ve never talked to most of my real-life friends about,” Emily says. (Being on the Web, shrouded by a certain level of anonymity, can make it easier to pour your heart out, says John Suler, PHD, a professor of psychology at Rider University and author of Psychology of the Digital Age, who studies
online behaviour patterns.) A self-described introvert, Anna notes that, especially as she nears 30 and has less energy for big group dinners or blowout parties, her virtual bond with Emily is “the coolest friendship, without any of the things that make me nervous.”
Graduating from the social butterfly stage of your twenties and trimming friend groups down to the VIPS is a rite of passage for many women: In a study published last year in Psychology and Ageing, researchers found that in your twenties, friendship is about quantity—the more friends you meet and Sunday Funday with, the more opportunity to learn about yourself. But in your thirties, when you grow more settled and might have the demands of family and kids on your time, you crave emotional closeness and a tighter group of friends—meaning that idle chitchat with the other parents at preschool pickup isn’t gonna cut it. Less time for casual friends and a greater desire for ride-or-die besties is another reason women have started turning to the Web.
Shared interests have always been key for friendships, but with Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and Tumblr fandoms, it’s easier than ever to cherry-pick virtual pals who are prescreened and sorted according to your interests or hobbies, whether that’s doctor mums or rabid Game of Thrones fans. Common bonds are “even more profound online,” says Rawlins. It can take months of real hangouts to discover you and a new friend are both DIY furniture junkies—or you might never find an in-person friend who shares your love of ’90s Japanese anime. In ultraspecific online communities, “you’re down to brass tacks,” Rawlins says.
Jessica Fazari, 23, a film and television production student in Toronto, would agree. She and her friend Kathleen Smith, a 31-year-old therapist in Washington, DC, grew close via Tumblr six years ago, when both were mourning the death of a beloved Lost character (poor Juliet!). “I was a wreck, and no one understood,” says Jessica. But where the rest of her friends made her feel like she was being melodramatic, “Kathleen felt the same way,” she says. That’s the beauty of virtual friends: Meeting in specific online communities, rather than in the more mixed-bag bar or gym scene, means “being able to find people who instantly see you at your weirdest or strangest and be accepted,” says Kathleen.
Her early messages with Jessica led to chatting via Skype and a big sister–little sister friendship in which Kathleen helped guide Jessica through switching college majors and career goals. Having online friends, Jessica says, has made her more independent and mature (eg, flying solo to meet online buddies at fan conventions), which has strengthened her offline friendships. “As much as [the Internet] can be a garbage place,” Jessica says, “it can also be a place to find a lot of support that you might not find in real life.”
THE MISSING LINKS
Still, there are drawbacks to virtual buds. It can be easy to misinterpret who the other person really is—kind of like misreading the tone of a text message. “When you’re not seeing facial expressions, body language and tone of voice, you may not be perceiving the other person accurately,” says Suler. “It can become a fantasy relationship.” In his research, Suler says he’s encountered online-only friends who talk by phone or meet up, only to be disappointed that their chemistry is not as strong as it was on the Internet, or that the other person was not as warm as they expected because they’d projected a certain persona onto them that wasn’t really there. There’s also a chance that one pal bails without explanation or warning (which is easier to do than with real-life friends, since there’s little risk of an awkward face-to-face run-in down the road).
Rawlins points to another downside: A major way that friends bond is through spending extended periods of time together in the flesh—yes, even long stretches of silence sitting side by side in a car. “What we’re losing with our virtual friends is the ability to make memories: getting together, laughing, the moments where nobody’s talking,” he says. “There’s magic that happens that we can’t always get when we’re writing each other.”
Many virtual friends echo this sentiment and admit that not being able to toast each other’s promotions at happy hour or attend big birthday parties is the biggest bummer. According to Meetme, 95 percent of women with virtual friends said they’d like to meet them in person someday. Anna and Emily figure they’ll get margaritas eventually. And Jessica and Kathleen will soonshareairforthe firsttime— at Kathleen’s wedding, no less.
Hala and Melissa, the two doctors, say they know they’ll meet eventually, but they’re not worried that their online bond won’t translate. After all, Melissa says the two are already “going on the roller coaster of life” together. Adds Hala: “I think I would just give her a big hug.”
Wearing yoga pants to a hip restaurant is socially acceptable mum behaviour, right? Totally. If it’s clean, it’s fair game. I ate my dinner in the bathroom… LEAVING NOTHING Also acceptable. It’s the only quiet room! OFF THE TABLE, EVEN THOUGH THEY’VE NEVER You get me. SHARED ONE #Whinewednesday