Love, Friendship & Social Media
I recently had an illuminating conversation with my best friend on the nature of love and friendship. He had recently experienced heartbreak in a friendship and we discussed the pure searing agony that is having to decide whether to let a friendship go or whether you should stick it out and hope things get better.
Being let down by friends can be a far more painful experience than being let down by a romantic partner. There is so much more air that stings the wound, somehow. It can also be far more confusing, as even though you are both emotionally invested in the other person in so far as you care about them and (if it’s a healthy relationship) want to see the other succeed, there are not the same amount of readily available, source-reliable guides on how to deal with friendship hiccups and heartbreaks as there are relationship guides. But the pain a beloved friend can cause you can be as excruciating as that caused by a beloved partner.
Throughout the pandemic, friendships have had to adapt to new ways of maintaining their spark in the absence of weekly/monthly meet-ups for coffee, a pint, a wander, a good aul gossip. These new methods of communicating online can be great for some, but also, intensely lacking for others. In the gap between real life experience and online communication, there is a greater potential for miscommunication. There is also the added pressure of being ‘online’ and ‘available’ all the time, something entirely unrealistic for any person, regardless of their relationship.
In that gap, you will also find the great enemy: loneliness. When I feel lonely and in need of a cup of something warm & a chat, I reach out to my closest friends. My friends have always made me feel incredibly safe in their company and able to speak my mind as freely as I need to. I am lucky beyond words to have good friends that I love and who I know love me. However, that is not to say I do not have my moments of paranoid doubt or that I haven’t befriended some incompatible people. To me, feeling that your friends are not there for you when you need them most, or feeling that they do not care about you as you care for them, is surely the loneliest feeling in the entire world.*
Bizarrely, even though this feeling is immensely lonely, it might be comforting if you have experienced it acutely during the pandemic to know you are not alone. A recent Harvard study found 61% of people aged 18-25 reported feeling high levels of loneliness and social isolation. Learning of this percentage, I was both comforted to know I was not alone in feeling isolated, staring unendingly into a screen, but also shocked that so many people reportedly feeling lonely. Staring at Instagram all day long in the early days of lockdown, I had come to believe that I was the only one who actually was staying at home, not seeing their friends for weeks, dreaming of just one movie night snuggled up on the sofa with my best friends again. Instagram, of course, is not a place to gather your ‘truths’ from.
I decided to be proactive about my feelings of social isolation and interrogate what it was about this experience that had made me feel so isolated. It’s a strange thing, trying to keep up with your friends solely through the online world. It makes ‘time’ confusing. When they are ‘available’, or rather, when Facebook tells me that they are ‘available’ i.e. online, they usually aren’t actually available. They are more than likely, like me, doom scrolling news about the climate, or deep diving through their old photos to try find something from 2012, or stalking someone’s Facebook that they used to know from primary school on the bus home because they thought they saw them again, four seats ahead, fifteen years later … but couldn’t be sure. They are just existing out there in the world, busy living, and, should I text them right at that moment, I am sure they will instead text back at a time when they are ‘mentally available’ to check in and talk about their lives.
But the ‘illusion’ of availability has made friendship far more toxic than it needs to be, or was for me at least, before the pandemic hit. There is a fear in me now that I never had before, that when if I try to reach out into the tech void and attempt to connect with someone I care about, that I will fail to do so, fail to be a priority to them, fail to keep the connection alive. Which is entirely bizarre. Many of my friends solely speak to me by letters and postcards which I love because it entirely mitigates this bizarre fear I have, fed ever more by the ability to see who is watching my Instagram stories, reacting to my posts, liking my Tweets, but not responding.
But my friendships with these lovely letter writers never falter with time, so why should my friendships falter with those who use the same social media as me? It became clear to me that my friendships were not the problem here but how I was simplifying the many complex ways social media creates notions of ‘ease of connection’ when connection has truly remained the same. We are just consuming it so much faster, and by seeing others socialising online and in person through pictures they posted online, it becomes an all-consuming thought that we are in a social connection-lack. Even if every single friend I have messaged me something through social media every single day, I would probably be unsatisfied. Because this is not a real connection. It doesn’t feel like friendship. That is the root of the rotten tooth.
I try to remind myself, when I begin to become paranoid about my friendships, that the situation is almost like bumping into your friend on the street. You do not immediately get to dictate that they will have time to be available for you and they certainly may not dictate that you should be available to them instantly, just because you happened to bump into each other in a passing moment between busyness. By both being online at the same time, you’ve virtually ‘bumped’ into each other, but do not necessarily have the time to stop and chat or grab a coffee. What is jarring is the frequency of online bumping you do (lol) when you do not have ‘real time’ available. Maybe it is just me, but it is the core of what makes me feel so disconnected. As though I have bumped into the same friend 5 times in one day, where we have both said we’re too busy to stop. But at what point do you stop bumping into each other and start planning to meet up? And when the world of ‘bumping into’ has moved online, there’s so much less satisfaction from these ‘meet ups’ anyway. In the ‘real world’, when you want to leave a conversation/situation, you can just tell the other person that you’re leaving, with a simple ‘well, thanks for coffee, I’m off!’ Online, you can just disappear without a word. And I often do, though mistakenly, because I am notorious for reading someone’s response on my lock-screen, thinking up a reply, and forgetting to ever write and send it. These jarring moments of bumping and departing leave me feeling social depleted even when I’m feeling socially disconnected.
Instead, I feel most connected to my friends when they call me at random (usually something that would get you blocked if I did not know you – I hate phone calls) to tell me about their day, or a dream they had where we went somewhere ridiculous, or to ask for my advice about something. When I receive their letters or postcards detailing how the last three months of their lives have been, what they hope to achieve this year, what they felt about the last one. Or when they send me photos of a day we spent together pre-pandemic that they thought I’d like to see. Or, my personal favourite, when they send me a voice-note wheezing laughing because they just heard a joke they think I’d find funny, so have called to tell me the joke, but end up just cackling down the phone to me for the entire duration. These are the moments I feel most connected to my friends. And sure, social media makes them happen, but I think it is more because they are in time with real life. They connect me back to the ACTUAL timeline… of my life that is passing while I’m staring at a green dot on a fake chat page, backdropped by a timeline of fake, humorous news articles, dogs doing tricks and strangers fighting in the Adrian Kennedy and Jeremy Dixon comments section.
The pandemic has changed everything about how we interact with one another, from the frequency of face-to-face contact, the distance we stand from each other in person, what ways we work together, how we keep in the loop about each other’s lives. Whether we like it or not, everything has changed.
To feel loved by my friends, sometimes I find it is far easier to disconnect from them on social media. I want to connect with them in real-life, in real-time, when we can genuinely ‘bump’ into each other at an opportune moment, both choose to ‘grab a coffee’ and talk all night on the phone about whatever dumb idea we followed blind that week.
Ciara Aoife O’Siorain (che desidera diventare una bella donna figa come gli italiani)
My Top Tips for Fighting Connection Lack Blues:
- Reach Out:
This may seem obvious, but it is something I have a tragically hard time doing. If you have people in your life who you love and who you miss, reach out to them. Tell them about the book you read that you think they’d like or ask if they’ve read anything they think you’d like. Ask for new song recommendations. Tell them your weird dreams. Engage on a level that is meaningful for you both. It won’t seem so unnatural to slip back into chatting about the ‘real’ things once you’ve connected back to what you both love.
As a writer, it may come as NO surprise that my remedy to all inner ills is to write. It doesn’t matter where, how, or what you say. It doesn’t need a narrative. It doesn’t even need to make sense to anyone but you; just write it all out. For me at least, when something is bugging me and getting me down, I will get absolutely no clarity from mulling it over again and again in my head. It needs to be right in front of me, in my own words, before I can set it straight for myself.
- Be Your Own Best Friend:
If there is any piece of this post that I hope you take with you, it is this. Be your own best friend. I do not mean ‘shut off everyone you know and go solo through the world’. Instead, I mean work on loving yourself and working on yourself so that you feel more at home in your own head. It is not an easy task nor is it a linear process. But if there is one thing I am grateful to my past self and current self for doing, it is beginning a process of self-care where I truly work on being my own best friend first. Knowing what I value in friendships, knowing what my strengths are, knowing where I need to work more, learning and relearning what makes connection to others meaningful to me. It is this part of self-care that makes the earlier dilemma of knowing when to call it quits in relationships a whole lot clearer.
- This is not really a tip, but a reminder:
You are wonderful and you deserve wonderful things. Be gentle with yourself.
*Second only to being trapped on a desert island with none of the items you requested during a fun thought experiment with friends.