Back when I was a tween I had a flip phone and was only allowed on the internet for roughly an hour each day. I used to go around to one of my friend’s places just to play video games for hours and hours on end because his mum didn’t burst in just to tell us our eyes were going square. Now I’m an adult. I rarely go anywhere without my phone, even if I have no credit or internet access. I use at least five different forms of social media daily. Hell, I’ve drunkenly live-tweeted my last two family Christmases. I’m always online, always talking to my friends, sharing hungover birthday selfies on Instagram, or adding funny moments from Grey’s Anatomy to my Snapchat story. And it’s not just me, it’s our whole generation—over-sharing and documenting everything online. It’s like a never-ending conversation with the world.
Social media is just an elaborate form of communication. It’s so prevalent in our society. We want to talk to people, we want to share our days and have someone care about us. It’s a basic emotional need of most humans. It makes sense that with these forms of constant communications we form bonds, not with the social media themselves, but with other people using them.
My first online friendship started on DeviantArt. My account was where I uploaded all of my angsty teenage poetry (I pray every day that I had the smarts to delete my account, because I honestly cannot remember my username or password and there is some really embarrassing stuff on there). I found the account of a person called Sarah, who used the website for a similar purpose. They lived in the state of New York, USA. We became friends, emailing and even sending letters and Christmas cards for a couple years. Now we just like each other’s Instagram selfies, but I might still have a handful of their letters stashed away in my parent’s house. We grew apart, much-like real life friendships do, but for such a long time I felt comfortable talking to them about anything and everything.
I now have many other online friends, from all across the globe. At the time of sending this to the editor, I have an 86-day Snapchat streak with a girl called Melina from Adelaide, Australia, whom I met on Tumblr. We talk about journalling and give each other writing advice when she’s not sending me snapchats of her cats or about potatoes. I met another good friend, Bret, on Tumblr. He’s from North Carolina, USA. We skyped very regularly two summers ago, trading each other Pokémon on our 3DSs and talking about boys. We text often now, thanks to the wonders of iMessage. We always talk about flying to visit each other, and I really hope that one day it becomes a reality.
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Several of my best real life friends I originally met online. I met a boy called Mason on Facebook through one of my best high school friends. I first met him in person two years ago when he stayed with my mum and me in a hotel for Victoria University open day. Since then he’s visited me in Nelson, and I’ve stayed with him and his family in Kaiteriteri while they were on holiday. The first two years of our friendship were entirely online, and now that we both live in Wellington (Hi dumbass) we can actually hang out. Two others, Jewelia and Lauren, I met through Tumblr. Last year Jewelia visited Wellington from Auckland a couple times and we walked around the city talking shit and singing High School Musical. Now she lives in the Hutt (as does Lauren),so we hang out as often as time and money will allow. I met Lauren in person last year at my sister’s birthday party (they are also internet friends), and then went to the Ellie Goulding concert in June last year with her and another internet friend who was visiting from Auckland. Making friends with others online seems like such a natural thing to me now.
Having said all that, we were the first generation that grew up with the internet. My Nana, my Dad’s mother, barely manages to send me a short, badly typed out email each week. I’m not 100% sure she understands that if you want to Skype call someone, you both have to be online. My Poppa, Mum’s father, recently made a Facebook account and has a whopping total of seven friends, all of which are family members. His wife, my Grandma, got a smart phone recently, and out of the three of my grandparents I think she’s the most adept; she successfully sent me an emoji the other week. I also think out of the three of them she’d understand internet friendship the most.
When my grandma was 14 years old she placed an ad in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly through the Pixie Pages asking for penpals. Her ad included her age, address, and a list of hobbies. There was also a similar advertisement requesting penpals in both the United States and Canada that she wrote to. She struck penpal gold and received letters from a range of countries including Korea, Pakistan, Sweden, South Africa, England, Germany, Holland, Australia, Canada and the United States. Overall she had roughly 22 penpals, mostly from Canada. Some of these became life long contacts, sending letters with photos of family members throughout the years and updates on major life events, such as weddings and holidays. Some petered off, disappearing into a world of no reply, as do many real life friendships. One of her English girls unfortunately got the flu and died after honeymooning in Italy. Grandma still has most, if not all, of the letters that have been sent to her over the years.
She’s met a few of these penpals, even though most of them live half a world away. In 1962 she flew to Brisbane to stay with Lesley, a penpal from the very start, and her family for five weeks. While there she managed to make contact with Bill, a girl from New South Wales who she’d lost contact with (and has since lost contact with again). Perhaps her most successful penpal companionship was with Evelyn Ross (née Grossman) originally from Lorette, Manitoba in Canada. In 1979 my Grandma and Poppa, with all three children in tow, flew to Montreal for a Lions Club world convention. They stayed with Ev and husband John in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and left the kids with them for a week. My aunty Karen and one of Ev’s daughters, Trish, had become penpals before the trip and it was their first time meeting. It was the same for Grandma and Ev—their first time meeting in 23 years. Ev also came to visit Grandma in 1988 with husband John, and Ev stayed up until 1am one night reading all the letters she’d sent to Grandma throughout the years.
Unfortunately now Ev has Alzheimers, so communication between her and my Grandma has become a bit awry. However, Trish and Aunty Karen are still fast friends; Trish was in New Zealand this month with her family, staying in Wanaka with Aunty Karen and her family. Over the summer Trish’s husband, Morgan, was in New Zealand for something work related, and decided to visit my family. We all went out for dinner, where I happily took advantage of the opportunity to get as much free alcohol from my parents as possible. He even asked me to make a playlist of New Zealand artists to give to his daughters, who have since emailed me and said how much they love the songs.
You could argue that online friendships would be shallow and unsatisfying. It’s all through a screen with no physical contact. You don’t hear their voice often, or see them in real time. I might not ever meet Sarah or Bret or Melina, but I’ve formed connections with them that have so far spanned years, without so much as a handshake. At times it can be incredibly lonely, but they’re just a button press away. It’s about making the most out of what you’ve got. So much of our communication with our real life friends is through texting or social media, so it’s not really that different.
To think if my grandma, at 14 years old, hadn’t reached out through Women’s Weekly, I wouldn’t have shared dessert wine with a Canadian man almost 60 years later. Perhaps if I keep in contact with some of my internet friends, my own potential grandkids will share cocktails with an American in the world’s first hovering bar. We can always dream, right?