I texted one of my best friends this morning, as I do most days. I haven’t actually heard the sound of her voice for several months, but we text most days, often several times a day. Such is the nature of friendship in the digital age, I suppose — for better or worse.
As humans, we have a tendency to pine for days gone by. We assume what was is superior to what is. And friendship is not different. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I miss those days of pre-digitial friendship — though I’m not sure if it’s because I crave more IRL communication or simply because I long for those halcyon days gone by when obligations were fewer and free time more plentiful.
I graduated from college, moved away from several close friends, and entered professional life just a few years before Facebook was launched. Most people I knew had cell phones, but not everyone, and without a tiny keyboard, numerical-based texting was an absolute pain in the ass. For me, the iEverything era took off at the same time as life obligations were increasing as well, so it’s hard to separate the two.
So, yes, I miss the way things were back in the day. I miss the way spending time with friends was as easy as walking across the hall or picking up the phone to say, “I’ve got wine, and I’m coming over.” I miss the way conversations stretched for hours because we had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I miss the way we mastered the art of the comfortable silence — something that is nonexistent in digital communications and would be bizarrely awkward over the phone. I miss the way we traded lipsticks and CDs without a second thought. I miss the way friendship was built on Thursday night happy hours at the bar down the street and standing dates to watch 90210 or Ally McBeal.
I miss the ease of friendship, and the proximity of it, but I’m not sure whether that is something that has slipped away because of the digital age of iEverything or because life is just too damn busy now, with jobs and kids and a pile of bills to pay. Has the nature of friendship changed because our lives have changed? Or has friendship changed because technology changed it? Or both?
Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The New York Times Style Magazine about the changing nature of friendship. “Social media is a vehicle of self-promotion, a means of fixing an idea of yourself in the social sphere, without people actually knowing you at all,” he said. “And that’s a change: The thing about friendship used to be that the ideal was shared entirely by the pair of you, or sometimes by a group, yet it remained local, and that was part of its power.”
O’Hagan pinpoints the slippery slope of friendships in the digital age: “You can know everything that’s going on in people’s lives without knowing a single thing going on in their hearts. But is that friendship?”
He has a point. The tech-driven digital age has definitely changed the way friends communicate, but has it really changed the nature of friendship? Has it made friendship less personal, less connective, less real?
The cornerstone of friendship isn’t the public nature of the relationship, but the private connection of it. And that private uniqueness hasn’t been eliminated; it just looks different now. Sure, we might post a photo for our 832 friends to see on Facebook or Instagram, but does anyone consider every social media connection to be a friend? I doubt it. I don’t.
And despite the very public nature of our communications with acquaintances, the private connections of true friendship are still there, whether it’s in the form of a coffee date, text message, or ongoing email chain. Not to mention the fact that technology has allowed us to maintain friendships that might have otherwise waned when time, distance, and the constant demands of parenting take hold.
For instance, I communicate almost exclusively with one of my best friends via texts, usually with fun emojis and GIFs. Do we talk on the phone? Rarely. Who has the time for phone calls when you live in different time zones and have conflicting schedules. I connect with another friend through email and a private Facebook group that consists of just the two of us. We see each other every few months, and send long emails in the meantime.
I have a handful of friends from college who are part of a massive group text that blows my phone up with beeps and buzzes every few weeks. We see each other once or twice a year, and it’s as if we are walking down to that Thursday night happy hour at our favorite bar again, even though I couldn’t tell you what street any of them live on or what their favorite restaurant is.
And I have a few online friends who know intimate details about my life, and whom I consider to be confidantes and friends of the highest order, but whose voices I have never even heard. Technology has made these friendships not just possible, but it has bolstered them because we have additional ways to communicate and do all those things that friends do for each other — listen, support, help, and love.
“Fundamentally, it’s the art of friendship that warms you in the various winters of your discontent,” O’Hagan writes. “And when you’re in trouble you don’t want 1,000 people, but just one.”
I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. Friendship is about quality, not quantity. Friendship is about connection, companionship, and presence. And sometimes the warmth of friendship comes via a long heart-to-heart over coffee or a comfortable silence while taking a walk together.
Other times, the warmth of friendship looks a lot like a LOL-worthy GIF, an inspirational meme, or a sweary e-card sent via email or text message.
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