The hazards of virtual friendships

MR beaver_flickr_online friendships

This week people I have known for a long time (in internet time) behaved in a way I didn’t expect. There was personalisation of attacks and what I’d consider to be bullying and it totally threw me off guard. I responded to it in the best way I knew whilst trying to remain as neutral as possible. I got no response. Not from a one of them, and today I found that I’ve been mass-unfollowed by people I thought were friends. This ‘phenomenon’ is what I want to talk about, the nature of social media friendships is what I’d like to discuss.
Internet friendships are not real friendships. They are fickle things that can break down the minute plurality of thought is entered into. It creates false dichotomies and hive mind phenomena. Even though you don’t meet the people you chat to, at least usually not with any regularity, you can find yourself talking to them on a regular basis. When you are housebound and absolutely unable to socialise regularly, these online friendships can seem incredibly important. You can choose who you form friendships with, and form groups of friends based on interests rather than work, or education.
But even though the friendships you make in the physical world can feel awkward and at times even boring, physical ties can be somewhat harder to break. For instance, when you’ve had a mate for a couple of years in the ‘real’ world and you have a disagreement, chances are you’ll apologise and make up. When you disagree in the virtual realm it takes only the click of a button to end a friendship forever. You don’t even need to extend the courtesy to tell someone you don’t agree with them, or that you’re angry. Just “click”, and they’re out of your life.
It’s so easy and so tidy, but it’s also so cold and cruel. I guess when you are able-bodied and mentally well you can take yourself out into the world and close yourself off from whatever went on online. Social media is a frivolity, a triviality, a self-promotion tool or pathway to success, rather than your whole society. But for people who are unwell it can be their entire society, and as such friendships can mean so much more. You don’t get to just click and end friendships of a couple of years and then think no more about it. You are stuck there with a screen and the feeling of emptiness or pain, and often the sense of just not knowing what you did wrong. A few months ago I was unfollowed by a few people for not ending my online discourse with some others, now, ironically, those people I refused to end my online discourse with, have ended theirs with me. It’s so childish, so silly, and yet also, when it’s all you’ve got, so hurtful.
Previously, I have literally been in tears over the way these things happen. I won’t do it now though. I’ve learned to be wary and therefore have become more resilient. I’ve learned not to trust people I’ve met in the virtual realm. Because as long as they can click a button and make you disappear from their lives they don’t have to put any real consideration into the situation. Ironically, it’s the same causes as with online misogyny. These attacks happen because the person sitting there writing misogynistic abuse is able to depersonalise the receiver and it’s exactly the same situation when people treat their online friendships this way.
I guess my point is that it’s bloody lonely being sick, but it’s wise not to rely on social media as you would on ‘real’ world friends. It sucks, but it’s a shitty truth. Use it for entertainment, something to pass the time, but don’t emotionally invest in it. That is where the path to disappointment and heartache lies. And maybe we should also all think a little more about the people we socially interact with on the internet. If somebody snaps in a way that is unusual for them, maybe you could think about what else might be happening in their lives. Before you discard someone, think about what emotional effects it might have on them. Do they live alone? Are they suffering in any way? Are you actually being fair in ending your friendship?
I get that none of us is ultimately responsible for another’s well-being, but maybe we should be. Maybe we should try to be more socially responsible, even if it is only through the medium of Twitter or Facebook. I spoke to someone this week who was suffering and had been seriously hurt by the above described behaviour, and it really wasn’t any better to view it from an external position. In the words of Jerry Springer “Take care of yourself, and each other” (though possibly avoid the daytime TV, chair-throwing scenario).
Photograph by Worapol Sittiphaet, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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