Here's What It's Like To Meet Your Online Friends IRL
Online I created a persona based on the person I wanted to be. It was a better version of me; it didn’t have all the ugly bits. But I’ve since learned it’s the ugly bits that make us interesting.
I met Laura and Lubi for the first time in a Starbucks across from their hotel in Manhattan, primarily because the S'mores Frappuccino was back on the menu and I said I’d never had one.
I didn’t really meet them there, though.
We had actually met two and a half years before, when I joined an online writing group. In New York, we hugged and laughed and said, “Finally!” There was no awkwardness, no disconnect between who we were online and who we were in person – it was like we’d known each other all our lives.
I started seeking out friendships online a long time ago, when I was a lonely kid first beginning to experience the inexplicable sadness that would later be diagnosed as depression. I was 12 and the internet was my escape – I went to Neopets (remember that?), LiveJournal, and, eventually, Tumblr, and I found my people. Online I was someone else, someone clever, someone funny. Someone valuable. It didn’t matter how fat or ugly or unloveable I felt in the real world, because the people I knew only by their avatars and usernames didn’t know about any of that. They just knew me by the value I created through my words. Relics from those wilderness years are still visible online – old accounts and posts, online journal entries from a decade ago. I look back at them sometimes and wince. I was so desperately unhappy, and I can feel it in the words I wrote.
But the stranger-friends I had were there for me. Most of them were older, and they told me the pain wouldn’t last forever. They gave me a safe space to discuss feelings I couldn’t talk about anywhere else. I was lucky to find people who were kind and understood how I felt.
I forged close friendships with other writers and lonely fangirls, and met some of them in real life. I went to see Fall Out Boy in London with a friend I’d made on LiveJournal when I was 14 – it involved a lot of parent-to-parent phone calls and a chaperone, but it was bloody amazing (still one of my top 10 concerts ever, no shame). She later came to stay with me in Sheffield, which was probably less exciting for her. I had a friend to stay from Germany when I was 18, which made me realise that some online friendships don’t translate into offline ones. I called time on our friendship for the sake of my own wellbeing, finally able to see when I met her in real life that she’d been taking advantage. I know some of my old friends are now well-respected writers who probably have no idea who I am or any recollection of our friendship, but I remain weirdly proud of them all the same, because we were all awkward teenagers together on the internet, bumbling along trying so hard to be cool.
It’s hard to explain online friendship to those who haven’t experienced it. It was drilled into me as a youngster that having friends on the internet was weird and that they were likely to be online predators, but while it’s important to always take steps to protect yourself in case someone isn’t who they say they are (thank you, Mum, for the stern advice when I was a teenager), the internet is as much a force for good as it is the opposite. When I was planning my recent holiday to New York, I told people I was meeting some friends out there, but never that I’d met those friends online. Online friendships have a stigma attached, even more so than online dating – that, at least, people seem more able to understand. Why, people seem to wonder, would anyone need to make friends online? Why can’t you just do it offline? I get it, I really do, but I’ve never been good at making friends offline. I’m socially awkward and immediately assume that I’m not worth anyone’s time, which probably makes me seem aloof and unfriendly. Online, there’s no expectation, no awkward conversation, and I’m saved from trying to understand nuance and tone.
Even so, I always kept my online friends at arm’s length, in the way I have done with just about everyone, online or not. I was so afraid to tell people who I really was. How sad I was. How lonely I was. I created a persona based on the person I wanted to be, and that was that. It was a better version of me. It didn’t have all the ugly bits.
I’ve since learned it’s the ugly bits that make us interesting – my friendships, both online and off, taught me that. There’s very little that Laura and Lubi don’t know about me. They know about the highs, the lows, and the cringeworthy details of every date I’ve ever been on. We initially bonded, as young women do, over Chris Evans and Tom Ford, over RuPaul’s Drag Race and '90s nostalgia, but somewhere down the line it changed. Nothing was off-limits: no filter, no boundaries. Our group chats have become a non-judging safe space where I get a stern talking-to when I’m being ridiculous and all the love and support in the world when I need it.
It was Laura who told me I needed to get help last year when my mental health took a dive – but more than telling me, she made sure I did it, becoming my de facto therapist while I was too scared and ashamed to get help offline. She’s helped me with my nonexistent self-esteem and challenged me when I needed challenging. We talk daily about everything and anything, from self-doubt and self-harm to Glossier makeup and Seinfeld. In fact, she and Lubi are the first people I tell when I have any sort of news, and they know the minutiae of my life. They’re my closest confidants, and they live over 3,000 miles away.
In many ways I feel this distance enabled us to become close in the first place. I’ve found it easier to tell strangers about myself than the people that know me best, from nailing the contents of my heart to an article on the internet to the guys from Tinder who never want to meet me again after I say something weird on our first date. I used to think it was because those online friends didn’t really matter – they were disposable outlets for the extreme emotions I still struggle to get a handle on. This cynical, self-centred view doesn’t hold true, though, and I’m no longer the cynical, self-centred, deeply unhappy person I once was. I’ve grown close to people online because there, I’m not afraid to say how I feel, and ironically, I’ve become more able to vocalise my anxieties offline in the process.
We didn’t have long in New York. My trip was eight days long, but Laura and Lubi were only in town for 30 hours, so we had to make the most of it. The trip was planned around important pilgrimages to places we’d talked about for months – Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien, various makeup stores, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We ate good food and swatched highlighters at Sephora, we got taxis everywhere because I thought it was a novelty flagging down a yellow cab like in the movies. Perhaps most excitingly, while eating the classiest brunch ever in the Met’s members dining room, we saw Tim Gunn, and freaked out in unison – Project Runway is one of our go-to shows. I can’t remember ever laughing as hard as I did for the one and a half days we were hanging out. I think I was starting to believe I was never going to laugh like that again – like nothing else mattered but the atoms that made up the three of us, sitting in the Met dining room, squeezed on to chairs at Burger Joint, hanging around the Kat Von D stand at Sephora. We were just three normal twentysomethings on holiday. None of our baggage made the trip.
I left them at Port Authority on Sunday night so they could catch their bus. I didn’t want to say goodbye, because we don’t know when we’ll see each other again – flights are expensive and free time a rarity. It might be the first and last time, but I hope not. So many of my online friends have disappeared without a trace – one day I’ll log on and they won’t be there, and I’ll worry about them for a while, send messages, check their usual hangouts, but they never come back. Like ghosts who’ve haunted a place for too long, one day they move on, and you start to wonder if they were ever really there at all.
Two years of friendship is a long time – on the transient, ever-changing internet, it’s even longer. I was nervous about meeting Laura and Lubi. They were nervous about meeting me. We all joked about not being as cool in real life as we seemed online, but Laura and Lubi had met before and have known each other longer than I’ve known them. I felt like an interloper, crossing the Atlantic with my limey accent to be an awkward third wheel, but when we stood in that Starbucks, trying to work out how they manage to make the S’mores Frappuccino taste like burnt marshmallow, I realised you can’t intrude on something you helped create. Our relationship, built on jokes about our mental health and pop culture references, has solid foundations.
“It’s weird,” I said when I called my mum from my Airbnb in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the morning after Laura and Lubi left. “I’ve never been to New York before, but it feels like I’ve come home.” ●