Let’s Really Be Friends: A Defense of Online Intimacy

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Excerpt from this article:

…Relationships that travel from the Internet to the nondigital world, or navigate a space somewhere in between, have retained that same patina of weirdness. The stigma associated with online friendship, that persistent doubt that “real” intimacy can only be created via physical encounter, has not faded. Even in this, the Age of Social Media, when virtual interaction populates almost every facet of daily existence, online friendships are still viewed with suspicion. But they shouldn’t be. The time has come to obliterate the false distinctions between digital ties and the ones that bind us in the physical world. Our lives on Twitter and Tumblr are today a real part of our real lives. Everyone is an Internet friend.

…The anxiety still lingering around Internet friendship is a legacy of a particular antiquated conception of online life—a sense that “the Net,” like jetpacks and the Segway, was going to be a lot cooler than it has proven to be. The 1980s-era techno-utopian vision of “cyberspace” as a separate, and perhaps even pure, Matrix-style realm of glowing tubes and binary code was a false one. “At no point was there ever a cyberspace,” Jurgenson said. “It was always deeply about this one reality.” The Internet is shopping for knitted caps and sharing coupons for bad meals and enduring comments from sexist strangers. It has always included an element of real life difficulty, and the primordial web denizens knew it. Now, the rest of us do, too. We once fetishized cyberspace as sexy and revolutionary. Today it’s just normal.

Online friendships make it clear—and forgive the debt to Facebook—that the way we friend now has changed. Intimacy now develops in both digital and physical realms, often crossing freely between the two. If we accept the equal value of virtual friendships to their IRL analogues (perhaps even doing away with the pejorative acronym), we open ourselves up to a range of new possibilities for connection.

“The Internet represents a broadening of the spectrum of relationships we can have,” Jenna Wortham, a New York Times Magazine writer known for the prolificacy of her online social life, told me. “I have lots of online-, Gchat-only friendships and I love them. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I don’t know [these people] in real life and I don’t have any plans to.” The merit of these friendships lies in their mutability—in your pocket, on your screen, in your living room. Discarding the distinction between real and virtual friendship does not doom us to a society in which tweets, chat, and e-mail are our only points of contact. It just means that the stranger we meet every day on the other side of our screens will no longer be a stranger, but someone that we know and trust.

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