19: Internet friends

You might've seen a bunch of these fun social graphs circulating around Twitter a few weeks ago. For example:

There was something surreal to me about seeing my world unexpectedly centered by a stranger on a few hundred pixels. These days, I think of my time on Twitter as primarily social. I don't have anything to shill (for now, anyway). I reply more than I tweet. Mostly, I come on Twitter to hang out with other people I know from Twitter, and maybe meet some new people along the way. And so I felt a bit surprised that these relationships would be interesting enough for anyone to graph in the first place.

I've been doing some version of “socializing on the internet” since I was old enough to use a computer: chatrooms, games, forums, blogging sites, social media, group chats. I've never really stopped hanging out with strangers online; I just move towns every couple of years.

Subconsciously, I figured my use of Twitter differed from my early online days, back when divulging a single photo of yourself was a coveted act of friendship. Back then, I thought of myself as having “internet friends” and “IRL friends”, and those two worlds didn't overlap in any way. My online social life was filled with people whose names I didn't know, doing things that had absolutely nothing to do with our day-to-day lives.

Once everyone got on social media, my online interactions switched from being “people I know from the internet” to “people I know from real life”. My internet friends started sending me Facebook requests. I'd accept, then scroll through my friend list, amused to see their real names appear alongside other people I knew. To me, Facebook was a place for IRL friendships – after all, I’d signed up with my college email address.

Similarly, my Twitter account is tied to my real name and public identity. Twitter has real-life consequences: I've made close friends, relationships, found most of my interesting work through Twitter. Although I'm loathe to admit it, Twitter has become the operating system for my offline life. [1]

Seeing those graphs, though, I had the strange sensation that my online-offline world was looping back onto itself, where internet friends and IRL friends are becoming indistinguishable from one another. If I'm ever asked how I met one of these friends, I say that we met through Twitter, which is shorthand for “I know this person from a particular friend group whose shared social context is Twitter.” I think of them as IRL friends, because they are very much a part of my real life.

But what does it mean to have “Twitter friends”, anyway? If a Twitter friend is someone you hang out with, work with, party with, date, does that make them an IRL friend, even if you met them online? Or is it just that internet friends are slowly cannibalizing our offline world?

An old college friend called me from Germany out of the blue the other day. We hadn't spoken in years, but we immediately fell back into familiar territory, reminiscing about rum and tequila, late-night döner, that time we tried to sneak onto a military base to eat Taco Bell. (Mmm, Taco Bell.) I could feel the shape of our friendship through the phone. It was cozy, palpable. His voice made me feel centered in my body.

We started out on a phone call, but he insisted that we turn on FaceTime, if only for a moment. I hesitated, hedged, protested. I was conducting our impromptu reunion from the backseat of an Uber, sweaty after kickboxing class, en route to a friend's house. Truthfully, I feel uncomfortable about connecting my body to my disembodied voice these days, used to being permitted to hide behind screens and text.

He persisted, and I finally agreed, rolling my eyes. Standing on a quiet street in the Mission, I switched on my camera, held it up to my face. A pause...and then I saw him pop up on my screen, eyes warm and crinkling, smiling widely. “Ahhhhh, there you are!” he beamed, clearly thrilled to see me. It made me happy. He was right: it didn’t feel like a proper reunion until we saw each others' faces.

I think about the first group of friends I made when I moved to San Francisco, a patchwork of roommates who've lived in various apartments across space and time. When I think back to those early years, I remember us huddled on a couch in our impossibly tiny apartment, watching movies. I remember a butter fight that broke out in the kitchen, ridiculous costumes, impromptu wrestling matches. I remember spending hours and hours in our living room, talking about nothing, vaguely wishing that time didn't exist, until one of us would finally take a forbidden glance at the clock and herd the rest of us to bed.

By contrast, my internet friends keep house in group chats, endlessly texting screenshots and links and silly memes to each other at a pace that I find challenging to keep up with, my phone an endless glowing forge of possibility, flickering with every new message. When I reflect upon our shared memories, my vision is filled with blue and white: the colors of our message bubbles flying back and forth. I peruse screenshots, not photos, to remember the good times. It's not that we don't have photos together; it's just not where my brain goes first.

My internet friendships look a lot like my IRL friendships, but they lack corporeality, are impossible for me to get my fingers around. When we hang out in person, our offline interactions look a lot like our online ones: talking, analyzing, processing, thinking out loud, asking questions, reflecting, words, words, words. Our brains are directly wired into one another. Our bodily expressions are confined to heart-eyes, wow, angery, cry, or whichever limited faces our messaging apps allow us to make. We blow blue bubbles at each other. We convey our emotions through slang and punctuation, express our love through memes.

I like to think about these friendships as space friendships, like growing up on Mars or the moon instead of on Earth. A moon-woman might be genetically human, but she'd be stretched tall, willowy and pale.

Most friendships start as relationships of proximity, whether we met replying to the same tweets or working in the same office. But because internet friendships are birthed in a weightless space, they tend to grow differently. I expect more of my friendships will straddle this line between online- and offline-first, instead of being as compartmentalized as I remember growing up. My Twitter life isn't that different from the version of me who used to post dumb memes on message boards, nor the version of me who gets drinks with her colleagues after work. It’s just that these friendships now stretch across multiple universes.


[post-script that started out as a footnote but got a little too long]

[1] Some might say that Reddit is the modern version of online forums. While I think Reddit might be a direct analog, Twitter is arguably its spiritual successor. The major difference between being a Twitter “regular” and a forum regular are follower counts, which track status in a way that's more visible and transferable. Gaining followers means you'll be more widely perceived as a person of interest, which isn’t necessarily true about being a forum regular.

In other words, there's a reward system attached to being Extremely Online now, and twelve year-old me is thrilled. It seems more obvious when we use terms like “YouTube creator” or “TikTok star”, but if you'd told me back then that I could make a living off of what is essentially hanging out on forums all day (i.e., turning my Twitter activity into paid work, a sleight-of-hand performed over and over again), I wouldn't have believed it.

It feels like blogging is still frozen in amber today because we haven't yet figured out how to attach status to it. People have been blogging for decades, but the most successful bloggers still look surprisingly old-school, with entire micro-communities that thrive solely in their comments and adjacent forums. Although there are an endless number of blogging platforms, they’ve all struggled to create value beyond utility. They provide technical infrastructure for writing and publishing, but not social infrastructure. Eventually, these platforms churn out, with a new prom king crowned every couple of years (Xanga, LiveJournal, WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Medium...).

No platform seems to have figured out how to make blogging a legibly high-status activity. I refuse to believe that this is just because bloggers are too cool for platforms, because the same argument could've been made for online forums and gaming, and yet we have Twitter and Twitch.

I love that monetization is something you can do on Substack, but I don’t actually think it’s a killer differentiator on its own. Processing payments still doesn’t take a platform beyond utility (this is where Patreon got stuck, in my view). A writer’s ability to charge for subscriptions is just one expressed outcome of their underlying value; platforms also need to mint that value in the first place. So what will be the parallel measure to Twitter followers that eventually makes writing a high-status activity? (Maybe the size of one’s email subscriber list?)


Notes

I brought my notes back because I got a bunch of nice messages last month from people who liked them, and honestly, it just feels weird not to do them, even if my thoughts are less interesting these days while I’m more heads down. So! Notes have been updated. A few highlights:

  • Starting to feel like ppl need personal SLAs that detail the messaging apps they do/don’t “support” (iMessage, email, whatsapp, etc)

  • Wonder if anyone will eventually build discovery tools / recommendation systems for group chats or if they’ll always remain undiscoverable (i.e. that’s kinda the point, you need a trusted friend/invite). The long arc of technology seems to bend towards legibility so wondering how that’ll play out wrt group chats

Links

  • Chronic City (Jonathan Lethem): I think I might love this book in the same way that other people love Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite authors, but this book in particular is one whose world I find myself returning to all the time. Chronic City is a solipsist’s Bible: I first read it in 2012 while living on a small island in Belize for a month, tapping on the corners of my own distorted reality. Since then, its characters continue to occupy my mind, living out their stories in parallel to mine. I re-read it again this month and really think it is the perfect novel, especially for anyone navigating post-truth worlds in urban environments.

  • Magdalene (FKA twigs): I've been traveling a bunch recently, and this album has gotten me through a lot of plane flights. FKA twigs has a way of reorganizing my head when it's feeling muddled, like dipping my hand into cool dark water and catching all the errant sparkles that are bouncing around the edges. Her new album came out right before the holiday season and it’s carried me through the dregs of 2020.

  • Panelcode (Jeremy Douglass): I’m a sucker for hand-rolled cottage systems; I could happily spend my days making pattern languages for everything in my life. So of course I loved this markup language that Jeremy created for describing visual compositions as layouts. (I want to turn these layouts into a sticker pack!)

  • “An app can be a home-cooked meal” (Robin Sloan): Perhaps a longer explanation as to why I enjoy things like Panelcode. Robin talks about making a messaging app for his family, with a grand total of four users, and the joy of building things just for yourself, much like a home cook as opposed to a professional chef. (Reminds me of this tweet from Omar about the idea of “my grandmother’s operating system”.)

  • Uncanny Valley (Anna Wiener): Anna's memoir about living and working in Silicon Valley. I wasn't sure what to expect when I read this. It's not just a book about working in tech, but a book that touches my corner of tech: both one of my former employers (GitHub) and several mutual friends. While I think my overall experiences and takeaways differ from Anna’s, I was surprised by how much this book touched me personally, namely her experience of being a non-tech person entering tech relatively late (“late”, meaning, of course, our early-to-mid-twenties). Unlike most of my friends, I didn't move to San Francisco for tech: I moved here, like a blind and lucky idiot, for the weather, and lived and worked in SF for a couple years before doing anything that could really be considered “tech”. Reading Uncanny Valley gave me an outlet to identify and grapple with my own feelings as someone who often feels both fiercely protective of tech and also not quite “of” this world, which is something I didn’t know I needed.