I think it’s an understatement to say that the past few years have magnified how divisive the internet can be. Articles and books have been written—I have even written—about how easy it is for people to hide behind their keyboards and lob insults at folks they will never see. And if we’re being honest, sometimes we even fire flaming arrows at people we know personally, forgetting that actual humans we care about are on the receiving end of that piercing blow. I’d venture to say we’re all guilty of this at some point. I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it. It’s the kind of thing that leaves us feeling disenchanted with the internet and with humankind—the sort of behavior that makes us unfollow and walk away from friends and organizations, and maybe even leads us to abandon social media altogether. But there’s another side to online interaction that gets overshadowed by all this vitriol.
Some of my first Facebook contacts were people I had never met in person. People I still have not met in person—and yet, I still consider them my friends. We bonded over a common plight—conceiving and having a baby—and then we got to know other things about each other, like friends do. We had other things in common, like music and favorite writers and art, and now, all these years later, we all have teenagers and mortgages and eye wrinkles, and I love that we remain connected in this weird and wonderful way.
When social media was new, I remember people saying you couldn’t really be friends with online-only contacts. They said you need “real” interactions to truly know someone. The introverted writer in me said not so. I am most real to myself and others when I can choose my words and place them with intention on a blank page. What better way for me to connect with people than through endless blank text boxes. Pictures and videos and digital music and video-conferencing and GIFs have only enhanced what began with typing out words and clicking send. My best friend in the world and I never would have arrived at our current friendship if not for social media—and we are related to each other, have known each other our whole lives! We are both so introverted, so private, and so separated by the inconvenience of geography, that without the easy bridge of Facebook, we might have easily passed each other by. And I cannot celebrate a wedding anniversary or even drink my morning coffee, which my husband brings to me before he leaves for work each day, without thanking match-dot-com for leading me to this amazing life I now live. Even as I acknowledge social media’s divisive potential in these trying times, I will always be thankful for the connections it has given me.
One of those connections is my work. I started working remotely long before Covid. Before Zoom meetings and digital file sharing were the status quo, I was Skyping and uploading manuscripts from my sofa in North Carolina to a home office in West Seattle. In fact, I learned about my job from a local friend, who saw a Tweet from HER online friend, who would later become my managing editor and the person who gave me a chance to reinvent myself in a new career. She would also become my friend.
I worked with Lauren for five years, starting with small side projects and eventually became a permanent part of her team. As coworkers often do, we began chatting about our kids and husbands. We discovered we both liked the Seahawks. We connected on Facebook, then followed each other on Instagram. My youngest child was similar in age to her son and daughter, and we talked as much about picky eaters and early reading difficulties as we did about troublesome publishers and fussy manuscripts. She was smart and funny, and our banter flowed easily between the lines of our shared projects. Thanks to the internet, we remained friends when her work took her to a new position with a new company last fall.
Lauren and her family were weekend warriors and afternoon adventurers. She and her husband Kamel took their kids on bike and scooter rides in their neighborhood on warm weeknights, and to lakes and forests and museums on Saturday mornings. The homebody in me said it was because there’s just so much to do out there in Seattle, but really, that’s just the sort of family they were. Always finding wonder, always looking for new things to learn. Although I saw their lives exclusively through Facebook posts and Instagram stories, Lauren’s family was as familiar to me, sometimes even more so than people I know in real life. And especially during this time of great separation and seclusion, when posts and stories became the normal way we all saw one another, when the bulk of our interactions with people became digital, I saw Lauren as often as I saw most people. She appeared in my feed as frequently as my closest friends, a constant presence during my morning coffee and work breaks throughout the day.
Until she wasn’t. In a matter of seconds, at the hands of an intoxicated driver, Lauren and Kamel were gone. One day I was looking at their vacation adventures—hiking, whale-watching, waterfall-hunting—and the next day there were no new stories, no updates, no cheesy family pictures. The visual silence was stunning. Is stunning. When your contact with someone is centered around new content—posts and videos and shared experiences—and there is suddenly no new content, the empty space is jarring, vast, shocking. Lauren and I exchanged a few messages not even two weeks ago, and a long conversation about getting our kids to try new foods two months ago, and two days ago, the connection was broken like a piece of a mountain falling away into a rushing river thousands of feet below. It can’t be put back. It’s just missing, and the landscape is forever changed.
If you’re reading this and you are a person who thinks online people can’t be true friends, well, maybe you just haven’t made the right connection yet. Lauren wasn’t my best friend, or even one of my close friends, but she was my friend all the same, and I will miss her. I saw her every day, and talked to her often. I watched her kids grow and saw her navigate a global pandemic, and I learned from her how to be a person who works from home and writes and edits books. I will be forever grateful for our connection, which started with a Tweet between two friends, and which led us all to be changed forever, just for having known each other. That is friendship.