Written by Hannah Turner
As COVID hit, and the world shut up shop, the internet took centre stage. Weekly Zoom quizzes or FaceTime dates for those who hadn’t shacked up for isolation with a partner became the norm. Consequently, many previously inaccessible events moved online, which felt like a relief as a chronically ill person, who struggles to leave the house. Book clubs, author talks – not to mention university classes, too.
I found myself talking to the same couple of people, on a subsection of Instagram known as ‘bookstagram’, seeing the same few commenters on my book review posts. I started to share more about my illnesses, and found so many others suffering too. I have formed bonds with fellow endometriosis sufferers and young women diagnosed with the same rare genetic condition as me, despite meeting none of them in real life.
Online friendships relieve the pressure to arrive on time, to be on ‘good form’, to drink alcohol that makes me feel unwell and to be in spaces that are too loud for my sick body. There’s a sense of security when talking about the greyer parts of your life through a screen, avoiding the intense eye contact and looks of distress from your friends.
I spoke to Alex, who says he “finds it easier to be open with someone online, using his close friends’ instagram stories to share details of his life that he wouldn’t put on his lads group chat.”
Perhaps it’s about the lack of judgement online, and not having to navigate the awkward phase in conversation where you must move past less than joyful news and go back to talking about something trivial. As with most other chronically ill folk, we dread the niceties like “how are you?”. No one wants to hear about how we are still feeling unwell, and the internet often skips the small talk.
Many formed friendships online long before the pandemic forced us all to stay home: Millie says she met her best friend on Twitter 6 years ago. They had shared music tastes, it transpired they lived an hour apart, and now they hang out every week. To her, there’s no difference in the friendship they have to the people she met first in person.
Jen tells me that all her friendships were forged online. She thinks being older and not typically ‘attractive’, can make real life connections much harder to find. “Online nobody sees your face – you are a person with personality and interests and experiences.”
It seems that there is little tangible difference between the way we communicate with friends that we met in real life, vs ones we met online. After all, most of us use WhatsApp as our main tool of communication anyway. Claire says she talks to her online best friend every day, and that she is the first person she shares life news with, just as she would if they had known each other through work or study.
Although individual internet friendships seem common, and others cite community connections through fandoms, it can be daunting to try and establish an entirely new friendship group through an app. Most friendship groups are born out of convenience; a matter of right time and place. I have a solid group of girlfriends, cobbled together over the years through school and friends of friends, so I didn’t think I was in need of another.
Little did i know, my book-related social media endeavours would birth a brand new WhatsApp group consisting of a Northerner, a Welshman and two Americans, who I can say, hand on heart, will be my friends for the rest of my life. We started to talk about books, but at this point, I can recite what their favourite pizza toppings are, the names of their kids and their sleeping patterns. As we operate across three time zones, there’s a near 24 hour stream of conversation. It’s not unusual to wake up to 200 missed messages. We don’t have a lot in common bar our obsession with reading, but somehow that unites us enough to debate politics and console heartbreaks. We send each other group birthday gifts and an unimaginable number of unflattering selfies. We have somehow stumbled into a rhythm of intimacy that a past me could not fathom exists outside of the women I have known for most of my life.
I am extremely private in my real life, and inappropriately open on the internet. There is relief in not having to explain myself, because sick internet friends just get it. There’s also some self preservation in being able to compartmentalise my illnesses, and just talk about books and outfits. I don’t have to uphold the identity of the sick friend, to real life people who, try as they might, can’t understand I am not getting better.