Friends With Benefits 2.0: Some of My Favourite People are Ones I Have Never Met

POV

Friends With Benefits 2.0: Some of My Favourite People are Ones I Have Never Met

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

M

y Instagram and Facebook is filled with people I’ve met at gigs, on flights, or house parties. They are important to me, even though I have never met any of them after our first meeting. I hold their opinions in high regard. All of this, mainly because the foundation of these friendships, is mutual interests. And I know more about them than most people I rub shoulders with every day.

I can tell you with confidence that M – with whom I interacted for 10 minutes at an Aisi Taisi Democracy gig in 2017 – was upset after Atishi’s recent smear note. Now she only hopes that the AAP candidate gets her due on May 23.  I can also strike up a riveting conversation with S about Chennai’s loss to Mumbai by one run in the IPL final, despite not seeing him in a decade.

I am only acquainted with M and S’s passionate beliefs and opinions through their social media posts. I might have never hung out with them but given the times we live in, that is not even a dealbreaker. As of now, I’ve managed to create a pretty good character biography of my online friends in my head. So much that now if I see an article on AAP on my feed, I know it would be shared by M. And if I read a tweet on Dhoni, I’d be able to tell you how exactly S would react.  

Conversations with these guys are great, yet I shy away from meeting them in person. Maybe that’s because my social skills are as good as Sansa Stark’s ability of keeping a secret. So obviously when the members of a Whatsapp Group I’m part of made a plan to meet recently, I wasn’t exactly chuffed to attend it. “Ew, going out and actually meeting people like some kind of neanderthal?” my mind whined. But on the phone call, the host said something very unnerving, “You aren’t obliged to talk to anyone or even show up. Most of us are doing this as a means to get over our social anxiety anyway.” A meeting of a WhatsApp Group of strangers called “Social Anxiety Warriors” didn’t seem that bad after all.

Like most people my age, I discovered the first of my many online friendships on MSN Messenger. When I jumped on the bandwagon in 2005 with a bunch of my 9th grade classmates, an online friend meant someone who didn’t share your pin-code, but knew you inside and out – a freelancer friend of sorts.

I’ve noticed that most people who are active on social media tend to be introverts in person. In fact, there’s enough evidence to suggest that many introverts may use social media to overcompensate for their communication barriers, in real life. Take my online buddies for instance. I’d known these people for years and had watched some of them grow up online. We’ve discussed heartbreaks and bad bosses, politics and climate change, but this was the first time most of us were actually meeting in person. So obviously, at our Social Anxiety Warriors meet, almost all of us were a far cry from our online personas. On the interwebz, we shared hot takes openly, made edgy jokes and were generally perceived as outgoing. Yet, here they were, the most social among us barely managing to humour each other. Give us our phones, and the conversations would be smooth.   

Like most people my age, I discovered the first of my many online friendships on MSN Messenger. When I jumped on the bandwagon in 2005 with a bunch of my 9th grade classmates, an online friend meant someone who didn’t share your pin-code, but knew you inside and out – a freelancer friend of sorts. Meeting each other wasn’t a guarantee, but it was always on the horizon.

Now more than 10 years later, I’m still online, but the grammar of internet friends has slightly tweaked. Emotional investment and familiarity with someone’s life isn’t a prerequisite for friendship any longer. The word for the year is instead, “mutuals” – people who share mutual friends and common interests. People who, as this essay on The Verge points out, “by dint of mutual follows, appear in your life and manage to stay there, sometimes for years.” It checks out.

I have known S for 13 years now; she is one of my oldest friends. I don’t need to be around her physically to share the big moments. The day she got a new pet – a hamster – we were exchanging pictures all day, discussing how adorable his nose was. Now, she shares a video with me almost every other day and I pretty much look at his picture and know he is under the weather. Same with A, an Orkut acquaintance from 2005 whom I’ve never met but who is a constant in all my social media accounts. Just last month, he landed a new job at Accenture and I felt the weird misplaced pride I would have felt for a cousin.

Perhaps that’s the thing about internet friends right now – we’ve come to be a generation that prioritises convenience in almost any relationship. Our threshold for getting out of our houses to have actual human interactions is abysmally low and we’d rather stay indoors with our devices. After all, it’s easier to stay in touch with someone through replies to their Instagram stories than having to meet over coffee. Personally, I just don’t have the bandwidth to maintain a robust social life. At least not one that requires looking up from my phone screen.

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