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To hear people talk about internet friendships you would think it was one giant web of predators, catfishing and email scams: forget stranger danger on the dark street, the real people to be afraid of are hidden behind a profile picture.
While we all undoubtedly have to take measures to remain safe online, to assume every friendship or connection made on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, is fraudulent or insincere, would be a mistake.
As a woman of colour who works in the creative industry - not often surrounded by a lot of diversity - I have found real joy in seeking out a community I couldn’t find elsewhere, and making some great friends along the way.
My first online friendship was on Twitter with my (now) best friend, during the university exam period. We exchanged study notes in a few dozens direct messages, set a study date, and haven’t looked back since.
Drawn to each other by similar circumstances, friendships online are similar to offline in that they tend to begin because of shared interest or common ground - maybe they’ve read the post I’ve been raving about on Instagram. Maybe they have the same taste in food or politics. Or maybe they just love memes too.
If online friendships start similarly to other ones, they grow in the same way too. Often through mutual support: instead of calling a friend to congratulate them on that new job you RT (retweet) their jokes and compliment their Insta story.
Some people would cynically describe this set-up as an echo chamber or a bubble (everyone loving on the same stuff over and over again). But don’t real friendships exist in a bubble too? You don’t tend to hang out with people you hate and disagree with IRL in my experience.
Despite my positive experiences, when I tell people, most are still suspicious. Eyebrows are raised higher when I explain not only have I found a community online but have made friendships with people I actually meet face-to-face too.
People might be cynical (or pity me) but these are just as valid as other friendships, according to behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings, who says online friendships can be real.
Hemmings tells me: “When you connect with somebody and they connect with you and what you’re saying, how they come across and what they stand for is the same as what qualities we look for in a friend in real life.”
Not only that but it gives you a chance to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. I know what she means: I enjoy interacting with the community around gal-dem magazine - a safe space online written by women of colour for women of colour. This gives me somewhere I can talk with likeminded people.
Although Hemmings does caveat her statement by saying that meeting people face-to-face seals the deal. “Though some may disagree with me, I do believe you need to meet someone to validate the friendship in some way and decipher between true friendship instead of just nice correspondence”
She adds: “With genuine friendship, people tend to know each other than what they see on their phone or desktop”. This is not to say any friendships made through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram where both parties have not yet met isn’t concrete but this is usually followed up by real life encounters or even actions to become more intimate i.e Facetime or phone calls.
So how do you know if people are there for the real you or just because you’re popular on Instagram? Hemmings has simple rules. She tells me: “You have to equally feel comfortable that you’re getting something of each other instead of being used to enable something that isn’t friendship”.
Therefore if all a ‘friend’ online is asking you to do is to promote their work or personal brand and rarely takes an interest in you, then there may be room to question the basis of the friendship.
On that note it is worth remembering that just because someone has a lot of followers, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a lot of friends.
I think a lot about how my personal brand might attract more people because it suits the visual nature of the platform I’m working with: I love bright fashion and fit European beauty standards (I’m slim, light-skinned and dress in western clothing). Therefore I’m in a position to attract friendships and kind comments instead of the many women of colour who push similar content but gain less traction simply because of how they look.
Because of this, I take my friendships online with a pinch of salt. The ones that I have already I know are real, but I’m well aware that future potential friendships could be less successful. So before I gift you the digital equivalent of a BFF bracelet, I will want to know why I’m doing it.