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?

Women's Health (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - By Michelle Ruiz

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.”

FO­CUSSED GROUPS

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

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