Give me either the loneliness of the Finnish forests or of a big city.
- Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer
I believe the internet is hugely underrated as a way to make friends. Real friends.
Oh, sure, people will pay lip service to “blah blah people halfway around the world are just a click away blah blah”, but that’s a far cry from the kind of friendship where you can be open about your secrets, the stuff you don’t show the outside world. It can be hard to imagine that you can connect so strongly with someone you meet through a computer screen, no matter what conventional wisdom is about connectedness.
We have our great cultural narratives for making friends as young children. We have stories about the boy next door and the girl down the street, about friends from school, about friendship in the back of a truck on a country road and friendship in a quiet suburban neighborhood and friendship in the big city. We have movies and books and songs telling of the rising star from the countryside meeting the wandering city dweller on the midnight train going anywhere.
If you thought that last one sounded awfully familiar, there you go
But we don’t have the same cultural narratives around making deep, powerful friendships on the internet yet.
Most people don’t spend time figuring how friendships form. They choose whoever they happen to come across in their life, and accept whatever friend group they stumble into by accident. That has, in the past, worked reasonably well– especially in school. School puts a lot of students in the same place. Students of similar age, going through similar stages in life, and living in more or less the same social reality1. School does a lot of the work for you, so the process of making friends is hidden away. It seems like “friends” is something that just happens, and if it doesn’t happen for you, too bad.
But with the internet, although it technically lets us meet billions of people, the onus is on us to figure out how to use it well. How to spend a decade meeting interesting people who you mutually enjoy hanging around, instead of getting tangled up in pointless arguments that go nowhere– or worse, just being ignored.
Interacting with just as many people as you can, without paying attention to the context or your interests or their interests or goals or hopes and dreams and pet peeves– that’s the naive way to make friends. The naive way doesn’t work so well online. Treating it like a pure numbers game is a fast track to wasteful arguments, dead group chats, and comment sections filled up entirely with spam. If that’s the only internet you’ve ever known, it’s easy to just assume the internet has nothing more to offer. But that would be wrong.
It’s a cliche to talk about how “people are more connected but lonelier than ever.” It’s so cliche that it’s a cliche to call it a cliche.
Yet most approaches to the loneliness problem still use the naive approach. More groups, more invitations, more well-intentioned rearrangements of “meet more people and hope that it works out.” It’s the formula that worked in school, after all, so it should work online, right? Going from a small high school to a big college automatically expands your horizons by a ton, so randomly swiping and matching with other people should be even better, right? Now you have your whole city to choose from. Or your whole nation. Or the world.
But let’s reframe that: is “random stranger who you know nothing about” really the best we can do when it comes to finding friends?
Friendships don’t form from nothing. You’d be astonished at the number of people who’ve turned to anonymous internet forums talking about wanting to make friends. The comments go, “Oh, hello! Let’s be friends.” That does work out occasionally, but it’s not a great solution because “let’s be friends” is so vague that it’s basically meaningless. You don’t know what the other person is really interested in besides the fact that they’re also open to “making friends”, whatever “friends” means to them. That, plus the rather low chance of finding your people in an anonymous forum, is rather discouraging.
If we want to talk about feeling like the world is cold and impersonal and alienating, we cannot reach for purely random algorithms– a human roulette wheel– as the answer.
The internet lets us show two things to a lot of people: who we are and what we do, and importantly the internet makes it quick and easy to do so. Before the internet came along, that wasn’t true. (The best pre-internet way to reach enough people to find your true community would probably be to publish a book or a classified ad, but those approaches feel hugely underpowered compared to the instant internet.)
Strong, real friendships are built on who you are and/or what you do. That suggests a path to making strong, real friendships on the internet:
Do something you like/ talk about who you are
Put it on the internet
Show other people on the internet
Have other people show their stuff to you
The folks in the days of the early internet, with their messy HTML websites and loud colors and crazy fonts showing their underwater photography and circus acrobatics had it right, not the people with perfectly polished websites showing light-gray text on a dark-gray background that don’t actually say anything.
For me, “I also play an instrument (violin)! What instrument do you play?” has already opened more doors than “Want to be friends?” ever could.
To be sure, this isn’t the whole story about friendship. There are follow-up questions like “Which of my multiple hobbies do I show to the world?” or “What if my work isn’t that good?” or “Who do I show my creations to?” or “What happens after we show each other what we’ve made?” These are all great questions that I haven’t addressed here. I’ll write more about areas related to this.
Rather than try to cover everything in one post, this is meant as more of an entry point into thinking about the nature of friendship in the internet age from first principles.
1: Pretty much every college student in the year 2020 knows what a “meme” is.