Online Friendships – Should we GIF a F*CK?

online communication

online communication

It can sometimes seem like this is the age of the introvert. The internet makes it increasingly easy for us quieter people to function and recently there’s been a slew of introvert promotion from Susan Cain’s Quiet, to Rebecca Holman’s Beta: Quiet Girls Can Run The World 

I’m a typical introvert and as such I find it easier to communicate in writing than I do verbally. I’m also very sensitive so when I’m engaging with written communication I can sometimes read texts and emails in the worst possible tone, assuming someone is annoyed with me when they actually were just busy. I don’t struggle to make friends but I do find it difficult to foster big ‘group’ friendships (I was never part of a clique) and it used to be something that really worried me.

Recently, I’ve noticed some introverts crediting the internet with enabling them to create huge friendship networks from the comfort of their sofas and I wanted to investigate how that works and whether an online friendship can equal an offline one.

More Friends

With Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, it can seem like the average person has more friends than ever before. In her article on The Debrief, Gemma Styles says that in the past, communication was much harder and more time consuming and so it was physically impossible to cultivate the number of friendships that some people have today. But now “there is so much more opportunity for numerous, varied friendships such as on social media, there are a lot more people to keep track of and attempt to maintain relationships with.”

With more friendships comes the pressure of nurturing them. Like all relationships, friendships take work – yes they can be glorious and life-affirming and cause you to laugh until you feel sick- but they also involve time and effort. If we double the amount of friends we have, we double the amount of work it takes to maintain those friendships – but does the reward increase? And can you be as good a friend to 200 people as you can be to 20?

Introverts tend to enjoy a small number of deep friendships and ‘surface level’ friendships tend to confuse them. Sustaining a large number of friendships at the depth an introvert typically enjoys their relationships to have could be pretty overwhelming. So maybe, as offline, introverts should strive for a few close friends online as well?

In our busy society the work of friendship is often neglected. People you once lived with don’t respond to emails for months, a heartfelt message on WhatsApp is left on read for hours with no reply, catch ups and lunches are pushed back and rescheduled infinitely so that they are always looming on the horizon but never materialize into an actual event.

In a climate where having a large number of friends is ‘normalized’ is there not also the possibility that you might end up sticking with a friend who in the past, under more traditional methods of communication, you might have let slip? Since it’s easier to keep in touch without physically having to meet up it’s now more likely that friendships that once upon a time might have fizzled out now keep going despite neither party being particularly invested in them. This idea scares me and makes me wonder, how many of my friends keep in touch with me because it’s easy but not because they want to? How many of my friendships would survive if the internet stopped existing tomorrow?

On The Pool, Amy Jones defends the brilliance and beauty of online friendships, citing her own personal story that she “spent 20 years trying to find people [she] truly connected with” and ended up moving across the country to be with them in real life. It’s a beautiful story and in her article she mentions many more examples of the power of online friendship but when I read stories like this I have a similar feeling to when I watched Sex and the City – this is unattainable for me. I felt somehow inadequate as a 20 year old when I didn’t have my very own group of close girl friends to hang out with, now as a 28 year old I am beginning to feel inadequate because of my lack of online friends. For those who struggle to gain offline friends is the failure to gain a whole huddle of online friends just another thing to worry about?

Self Branding

In this article, Roe McDermott talks about how self-description has flourished in this age of Twitter profiles and Instagram bios. We’ve become adept at reducing our personalities down to a concise, two line, framework that introduces ourselves to the world. She writes that,

In a world with a limited attention span, having a tidy self-description is a useful skill. It acts as a shortcut; people know the broad strokes of who you are without having to exert effort.

But what if this constant act of defining our personalities is limiting ourselves? Self-description is creating an image of yourself; one that comes with pressure to live within the boundaries of adjectives – a boundary that can often be policed by other people.”

She gives an account of her own experiences (well worth a read) and raises an interesting issue; that people’s idea of your constructed self feeds into their own idea of self. If you are the quiet, good natured sidekick then they can be the gutsy heroine. If you are the geek they can be your benevolent protector. It’s when one party tries to break out of this duality that things can become difficult and relationships can become strained as one person tries to disrupt the status quo whilst the other fights to maintain it.

With introverts being more likely to perform a role they see as ‘necessary’ (i.e. continue being ‘the bookish one’ because their friendship group expects it) they are the people who might suffer the most from the detrimental side-effects of self-branding.

I also wonder – if your friendship is built on the fallacy of a constructed self then is it a true friendship? In real life, whilst people can pretend to be something they are not, it is much harder to sustain over a long period of time. But online, where things are drafted and carefully considered it’s easier to put up a front. In real life, you may attempt to put up a cynical, hard-hearted front but eventually people will see you getting a little teary at a wedding, or giving money to a homeless person, or making sure a friend got home safely after a night out and without you ever having to consciously decide to let them know you are softer than they might perceive. They get a more accurate measure of you just by being around you.

The Lost Art of Conversation

Whilst I don’t make a habit of quoting Debrett’s (an authority in British Etiquette), I found this quote in the ‘conversation’ section of their website interesting:

Once the conversation has got going remember to take turns and to listen. When the conversation is one to one, make sure you pay attention and do not look over the person’s shoulder for more amusing company, however tempting it may be. If you are trapped by a real bore then it is more polite to escape quickly than to look over their shoulder.”

The website also reminds readers to listen twice as much as they talk (the two ears one mouth rule used by the aristocracy and primary school teachers alike).

When conversation is made across social platforms instead of across a table it’s harder to put this rule into practise. I have WhatsApp groups that are basically just five women shouting statements about their lives into a void. One of us will pop up in the morning to talk about her hangover and the previous night, no one will reply. Later on another of us will send an all caps tirade about someone at work without asking how anybody else’s day is going, no one will reply. In the evening a third will yell-scream into the abyss about how much weight she’s put on and finally, comes a forever unanswered plea for Netflix recommendations. Because we can’t physically see each other we take it for granted that we only have to engage with the conversations that interest us the most (usually the ones that enable us to talk more about ourselves). In real life you’d never completely ignore one person’s comments and instead respond to another’s who you found more interesting, but on WhatsApp there are no hurt looks to temper such behaviour and it flourishes.

I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to this anti-conversational status shouting, but it does strike me as incredibly selfish and unthoughtful. It’s something that I’m making a conscious effort to stop doing.

Then again, since we now have more friends perhaps it’s impossible to engage meaningfully with everyone every time they spring up on our phone with something to say. We live in a world where people have access to us at all times – can we seriously expect everyone to listen all the time? Which begs the question, do we have a responsibility to think carefully before we send out a message and essentially invade someone’s life?

On top of a lack of meaningful engagement with what friends are saying is the stress of coming up with something meaningful to say yourself. When your last three messages have been ignored, a strange paranoia creeps in. Somewhere out there on the internet, you assure yourself, all your friends are group chatting in secret, probably about how boring you are. Then there’re the times you craft a witty message and everyone responds solely in emojis (crying face, crying face, thumbs down).

online communication

Should You Even GIF A Fuck?

Speaking of replying solely in emojis, GIF communication is something I find me and my friends entering into more and more often. It’s quick and funny and can often encompass more meaning than a text message could. As an introvert, I appreciate that the simple addition of an emoji or a GIF can clarify the tone of a message that could otherwise have been agonisingly ambiguous.

The Debrief states that “Media Studies Professor Kelli Marshall agrees that they [GIFs] are free from narrative restrictions – much like early cinema – and so can easily ‘reproduce an experience’ or create a story through juxtaposition to other GIFs.”

A GIF of Britney Spears smashing a car with a baseball bat expresses how I feel about a looming deadline more articulately than I could with words alone.

While some critics claim that emoji use is destroying our faculty to use language, Royal Institution lecturer, Sophie Scott, argues that emojis enhance our online communication by providing the non-verbal elements that are normally only possible when we can see each other. A blushing smiley face can give much needed context to a sentence that could otherwise come off as brusque.

A well placed emoji or GIF can deflect the seriousness of a comment, they can be the equivalent of a nervous laugh after an embarrassing confession, or a supportive hand on the shoulder following a piece of sad news. But as with words, the GIFs and emojis we use require careful consideration. Too often I have found myself skimming a message, responding with a crying laughing face and then thinking no more of it, even though I’ve been at the receiving end of such treatment and hated it! Going back to what I said about the importance of listening to what our friends say and thinking about their words, the over use of the crying laughing emoji is the exact antithesis of this. It really is the bare minimum in conversation and something I resort to often out of sheer laziness.

Like many people, I find myself re-reading messages over and over long after the conversation has ended, worrying about their subtext. Is that person annoyed at me? Did my last message come across as too whiny? The importance of choosing your words is paramount when they can potentially stick around forever but this can be easily forgotten in the heat of a rapid facebook messenger exchange.

So, Should We Be Worried?

Sophie Scott says that throughout humanity’s history we have always worried that new technology, or new ways of expressing ourselves will lead to us ceasing to talk to each other but this has never yet proved to be true. So it doesn’t look like the internet will be rendering us mute any time soon.

There are so many wonderful benefits to online communication – it’s quick and cheap to keep in touch with loved ones who are far away, it’s easier than ever before to meet like-minded people, wherever you are in the world, and for introverts it’s a low stress way to socialise without having to deal with anxiety sweat or a dry mouth.

As with many things, its negatives come into sharp focus when you compare your own experience with that of others or you become prescriptive.

I’ve come to be comfortable with the idea that I’m not the sort of person who can cope with a large group of offline friends. It’s too busy and distant for me – I need a couple of people I know really well, people who are as invested in the friendship as I am. Perhaps the secret to successful online friendships is to approach them in the same way you would offline – if you don’t like to be part of a big group of girls in a bar, why would you like to be part of big group of girls on WhatsApp? Stick to what makes you happy and let go of what stresses you out.

Above all, listening twice as much as you talk is a great rule to live by whether you’re online or off.

Do you have more friends online or offline? Do you enjoy keeping in touch with people online or do you prefer a face to face catch up? Let me know in the comments or email hello@terriblypersonal.com