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Let’s Really Be Friends

A defense of online intimacy

Illustration by Nathan Manire

In 1997, a writer and web developer named Paul Ford walked into a sushi restaurant in midtown Manhattan to meet a group of strangers. These were bloggers—a term not yet widely in use—who, along with Ford, formed a tight-knit vanguard of individuals publishing personal writing online. Ford had been building experimental personal websites since 1993, and had made a name for himself online with his lyrical missives on programming esoterica and New York dating mishaps. He’d never met the other bloggers IRL (In Real Life, a phrase that likely had even less currency then than blogger). He was excited to finally get the chance to do so.

When Ford arrived at the restaurant, however, he froze with anxiety. “I was 22 and the Internet was new and everyone was sitting around a table chatting and laughing,” Ford told me. “Who went to parties where no one knew each other?” He stood just inside the door and surreptitiously watched the group clustered around a table. “I left after ten minutes.”

This incident remains as strikingly plausible today as it did two decades ago. Relationships that travel from the Internet to the nondigital world, or navigate a space somewhere in between, have retained that same patina of weirdness. The stigma associated with online friendship, that persistent doubt that “real” intimacy can only be created via physical encounter, has not faded. Even in this, the Age of Social Media, when virtual interaction populates almost every facet of daily existence, online friendships are still viewed with suspicion. But they shouldn’t be. The time has come to obliterate the false distinctions between digital ties and the ones that bind us in the physical world. Our lives on Twitter and Tumblr are today a real part of our real lives. Everyone is an Internet friend.

John Suler, in his 2000 book The Psychology of Cyberspace, wrote that people “tend to separate their online lives from their offline lives.” But this is far less true today. With the launch of Friendster (2002); MySpace (2003); and, in 2004, the global behemoth Facebook, distinctions between friendship online and off grew more ambiguous. People had to decide which of their friends and acquaintances—many of whom they had not been motivated to see in years—they should befriend digitally. Facebook in particular, with its early reliance on college e-mail accounts for membership, has tied digital identity more firmly to the IRL iteration.

The perception that online relationships are somehow less real than their physical counterparts exemplifies what Nathan Jurgenson, a New York-based sociologist and researcher for the messaging platform Snapchat, calls “digital dualism.” Contemporary identities and relationships are no more or less authentic in either space. “We’re coming to terms with there being just one reality and digital is part of it, not any less real or true,” Jurgenson said. “What you do online and what you do face-to-face are completely interwoven.”

The first mainstream internet communities—and thus some of the earliest virtual friendships—didn’t emerge until the late ’80s, when commercial traffic was allowed online via private Internet service providers like The World, which launched in Massachusetts in 1989. Early online social groups were largely restricted to specific-interest cliques that hewed to the medium’s nerd origins. Usenet, an e-mail and file-sharing client created to sort news by subject, first launched in 1980; the WELL, a dial-up bulletin-board system co-founded in 1985 by hippie futurist and editor of the utopian Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand, became a popular gathering point for Grateful Dead fans. IRC, or Internet Relay Chats, were likewise segregated along topical channels, like #anime or #hardware or #geek. The platform peaked in the 1990s with Eris Free Network, and today is largely reserved for illicit hacker groups with a need for anonymity.

In this early period, crossover from the digital world and into the real one remained rare, in part due to suspicion of the semi-anonymous nature of the Internet itself. “You don’t tend to find deep relationships online,” Douglas Rushkoff, the tech writer and thinker, told me. “And if you look for them you could easily get catfished,” Rushkoff said. (Catfish [noun]: “Someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” See Urban Dictionary.) For those who have grown up on the Internet, the expectations of honesty in response to the existential chat query “A/S/L?” (Age/Sex/Location) might be low. But this may not remain the case.

Online traffic in the United States increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1999 and 2003. A by-product of this growth was a narrowing of the digital divide. Enough people were online that your real friends might well know your online-only ones, who could then be mentally reclassified simply friends-of-friends. IRL meetings became less suspect. Web communities, meanwhile, began to leave the vertical depths of niche interest and join the mainstream. In 1999, a web designer named Matthew Haughey launched MetaFilter, a general-interest online forum that is still active today. MetaFilter was designed to help users share links of compelling posts (cat videos!) from across the wider Internet. It also became known for its then-unique penchant for physical meetups. “The meetups were half shy nerds and half relatively normal people,” said Rusty Foster, a developer who founded a contemporaneous (and now largely defunct) community called Kuro5hin, which skewed toward a nerdier audience. Foster has since referred to his site as a “gated dysfunctional community.”

The first MetaFilter meetup happened in 2001, after an earthquake in Seattle. Discussion of the natural phenomenon as it happened caused the members to notice that they lived in close proximity to each other. Once it was safe to go out, they decided to gather at a bar. It went so well that Haughey soon devoted a section of his site to planning such events. Haughey attended his first meetup at a Belgian frites spot in San Francisco in 2002. “I was incredibly nervous, because I didn’t know anyone,” he said. But his fears proved misplaced. “It was really a great experience. One of the guys had the greatest username: Fishfucker. Fishfucker turned out to be a really nice dude.” Meetups eventually became big business. In 2002, a start-up called Meetup was launched that managed online social circles with an IRL component, charging group organizers for added features. The site now boasts over 180,000 Meetups with focuses ranging from New Age philosophy to “geek physique.” (The Internet’s ability to convene niche cultures has never flagged.)

The anxiety still lingering around Internet friendship is a legacy of a particular antiquated conception of online life—a sense that “the Net,” like jetpacks and the Segway, was going to be a lot cooler than it has proven to be. The 1980s-era techno-utopian vision of “cyberspace” as a separate, and perhaps even pure, Matrix-style realm of glowing tubes and binary code was a false one. “At no point was there ever a cyberspace,” Jurgenson said. “It was always deeply about this one reality.” The Internet is shopping for knitted caps and sharing coupons for bad meals and enduring comments from sexist strangers. It has always included an element of real life difficulty, and the primordial web denizens knew it. Now, the rest of us do, too. We once fetishized cyberspace as sexy and revolutionary. Today it’s just normal.

Online friendships make it clear—and forgive the debt to Facebook—that the way we friend now has changed. Intimacy now develops in both digital and physical realms, often crossing freely between the two. If we accept the equal value of virtual friendships to their IRL analogues (perhaps even doing away with the pejorative acronym), we open ourselves up to a range of new possibilities for connection.

“The Internet represents a broadening of the spectrum of relationships we can have,” Jenna Wortham, a New York Times Magazine writer known for the prolificacy of her online social life, told me. “I have lots of online-, Gchat-only friendships and I love them. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I don’t know [these people] in real life and I don’t have any plans to.” The merit of these friendships lies in their mutability—in your pocket, on your screen, in your living room. Discarding the distinction between real and virtual friendship does not doom us to a society in which tweets, chat, and e-mail are our only points of contact. It just means that the stranger we meet every day on the other side of our screens will no longer be a stranger, but someone that we know and trust.