Friendships, Online and In Person

Wednesday October 27, 2021

As people have been emerging out of pandemic mode, I’ve been thinking a lot about online and in person friendships, and how to balance the two.

I’ve always seen the internet as a essentially equal social space to the physical world: while the modes and idioms of interaction is different, the internet is just as “real” as any physical space. This used to be pretty contentious, and I thought it would take most of the people who grew up without the internet dying for that to change, but it seems like this pandemic has accelerated that shift, at least somewhat. We’re still not completely there though — I initially stopped reading Conflict Is Not Abuse when Schulman wrote:

This central role of anxiety in escalating Conflict is one of the reasons why, in our contemporary time, email and texts are so often the source for tragic separations of potentially enriching relationships. First of all, email and text are both unidirectional and don’t allow for return information to enhance or transform comprehension. We must speak to each other, especially when events or feelings are fraught. I wish that all the people of the industrial world would sign a pledge that any negative exchange that is created on email or text must be followed by a live, in-person conversation. And clearly we have a responsibility to encourage our friends and colleagues to not make negative judgments based on email or texts.

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Email and texts don’t allow us to go through the human phases of feeling that occur when we actually communicate face to face.

This is frustrating to me, since I know many people for whom communicating about emotionally charged topics via text is much easier than in person.Perhaps Schulman’s response would be that these people should learn to communicate in person. I don’t think that’s completely unreasonable, but I’m certainly extremely wary of any response to neurodiversity that boils down to “people who don’t fit into the normative paradigm should change so that they do.” Claiming that email does not allow for “the human phases of feeling” is just the naturalistic fallacy.

Given all that, I’d assumed for a long time that I could be fine with having mostly online friendships. I’d had lots of rich and meaningful online interactions, and I didn’t see why I’d need more than that. This pandemic revealed how naïve I was in that assumption — it turns out that I do need regular in-person social interaction, or my ability to regulate my emotions gets subtly but deeply broken.

I’m still not convinced though that this means that in-person friendships are categorically superior to online ones, though. My model of my brain now is that I need some amount of in-person social interaction, but as long as that need is being met, my other relationships could be of any modality.

Much of the time, I’d prefer friendships to be in-person than online, but given the practicalities of people living in different cities and countries, it often makes sense to pursue and put time into friendships that are online, even if that means putting less time into in-person ones. Particularly, I think it makes sense to focus in-person friendships on practicality (physical proximity, schedule alignment, etc), and online ones on more niche interests.

This is very much still something I’m thinking about and working out how I feel about, but I’m glad to have figured out what I have so far.