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A shot of a mobile phone screen, which features a message screen with the Search Emoji's page, full of Smiley faces. In focus, in the centre of the image, is the 'Smiling Face with Hearts' emoji

Image: ‘Love Emoji’ by Domingo Alvarez E, Unsplash.

Friendships seemed so simple when I was a kid—we go to the same school, we like the same things, we hate the same teachers and spend weekends together. Today, plugged into the internet and on our smartphones, the number of our connections can extend to potentially anyone else with a social media account. Are we as connected as we think, or living under an illusion of closeness and familiarity?

Social connection and intimacy are essential to our well-being, and while the internet has allowed us to create online communities and connect with the world at 5G speed from the comfort of our homes, we were already in the midst of a ‘loneliness epidemic’ even before the coronavirus forced us into mass social isolation. A 2018 study by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University revealed that 1 in 4 Australians experience loneliness, with younger people experiencing ‘significantly more social interaction anxiety than older Australians’.

We were already in the midst of a ‘loneliness epidemic’ even before the coronavirus forced us into mass social isolation.

A lot of the major transition periods in my life have involved the intersection between friendship and technology. It’s hard for me to imagine who I would be if I didn’t have internet access as an introverted teen. Growing up in the suburbs of Perth, I felt culturally and emotionally isolated, and whether I was conscious of it or not I craved the feeling of belonging. Being online reminded me that I was in fact not one of only three Asian girls in existence and that there were places where I wasn’t assumed to be an exotic outsider. While online, I was able to have a shared understanding of the challenges of growing up as a first or second-generation immigrant, but these topics were often difficult for people in my life to understand or hold space for when there wasn’t a common experience. I would wonder if the friction that came up in these friendships challenged their very foundation.

So I lurked and admired online communities around my interests, where people shared their own passions generously: for global street style, Blogspot for art and insights into people’s daily lives, Tumblr for curated mood boards and private thoughts, and Hype Machine to trawl for new music recommendations. I started discovering POC creators and Asian girls living in the diaspora—not only did they look like me, but their interests and aesthetics were clearly influenced by similar sources to my own and many were also mid-identity crisis like I was. Feeling connected and represented in the digital world completely changed my relationship with myself and how I saw my place in the physical world. I felt less alone in my experience and gained confidence in my own point of view, fuelling my desire to experience life beyond the suburbs and move to the megacity of Shanghai to pursue a career as a DJ and multi-disciplinary creative. I have also had many personal and professional opportunities arise due to the internet and social media.

Being online reminded me that I was not one of only three Asian girls in existence and that there were places where I wasn’t assumed to be an exotic outsider.

And now, back in my isolated hometown during the pandemic, I remain linked to those I care deeply for thanks again to the folders of apps in my phone. Reconnecting with old friends, while staying in touch with those I am physically apart from, I am reminded of the times when feeling more connected to people online created dissonance with those I was physically around, and subsequently within myself. I remember when an over-emphasis on online connections isolated me from the people I had around me; they highlighted the similarities I had with my internet friends and revealed the incompatibilities with the people I knew by circumstance. In some ways, this was an important contrast to realise in the journey of finding out who I was, and the kinds of people I wanted to be friends with. However, I think sometimes we aren’t even aware of the ways that we assume intimacy and familiarity in online interactions, or overlook the ways we could connect more deeply with the people around us in the now.

The nature and pace of social media can sometimes be counter-intuitive to developing meaningful friendship, with its engineered system of likes, comments and shares. It rewards the illusion of ‘authenticity’ and connection, and its algorithms construct a personalised digital echo chamber for each user. Parasocial relationships—one-sided bonds—that were usually reserved for celebrities in the pre-social media era, can now be formed with anyone that’s sharing their life and personality online. A video of someone talking into their selfie-camera and viewed by thousands or millions of people can feel like they’re talking directly to us. I have to remind myself that viewing and appreciating someone’s ‘stories’ is not the same as an actual conversation to understand how people actually are and not just how they appear to be. It’s easy to be pulled into the illusion, as writer Sadhbh O’Sullivan puts it:

No matter how often we repeat the message that social media is ‘not real’ and is ‘only the highlights’ of someone’s life, we can’t help but attach ourselves to the version of that person we see online.

Taking the time to get to know people and to build trust—and in a time-poor fast-paced world where everyone has a phone in their hand—is so important to me now. For real friendship, the kind that makes life richer and gives you a deep sense of belonging, it’s in appreciating each of us as whole individuals that platonic love and support blossoms—not in the small parts of who we are, or who we’d like to be, that we package and share as ‘content’.


In her iconic book All About Love: New Visions, the late writer and activist bell hooks emphasises the ongoing need for love in forming relationships and community:

A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we never need fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers—the experience of knowing we will always belong.

The desire to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion is what drives so much of human behaviour, online and offline. Connecting with people has helped my own self-discovery in honest and meaningful ways. But knowing or being known by a lot of people is not the same as being understood. That takes time and a deeper reciprocation than a ‘like’ affords.

Knowing or being known by a lot of people is not the same as being understood.

One part of growing up that no-one prepared me for was the way that connections that felt unbreakable at certain points might start to crack and dissolve. That as we grew into ourselves, we would move away both physically and emotionally from what was once familiar. The pandemic has made a massive impact on how we relate to each other. Some bonds strengthened but many people found their social circles reduced, as Jane Hu writes in her New Yorker article ‘What Did Covid Do to Friendship?’:

When limited to texting and phone calls and the odd celebration on Zoom, one gradually learns which relationships are held by enduring fondness and which will crumple amid structural collapse.

Friend breakups can be even more earth-shattering than romantic breakups—partly because we’re not always given the tools to manage the drifting that can occur in our friendships. We live in a world where we joke about how good it feels to cancel plans, ‘ghosting’ is normalised and you’re one Instagram infographic away from being told to cut people out of your life at the slightest inconvenience.

In 2019, Belgian psychotherapist and international advisor on sex and relationships Esther Perel celebrated her 60th birthday with a guest list that included friends from every decade of her life.

‘We sometimes move so fast,’ Perel said of the party, ‘and we don’t necessarily have the long history, the continuity, the long-form narrative of people who remember you decades before and kind of give you markers, signposts for your life.’

This kind of celebration reminds me that the foundation of who we are is usually built through the connections that we maintain over time and the memories we share. Time allow us to appreciate who we love and have loved from a different perspective. We need to make space for friendships to grow and change, to receive our going and coming. Social media can help with this, keeping us linked. But more and more, I feel like online connections are best for facilitating the ones we have in real life, rather than replacing them.

The foundation of who we are is usually built through the connections that we maintain over time.

In my life, the most meaningful bonds have taken effort. It is the real-world shared experiences—supporting and motivating each other in work and self-discovery, enjoying each other’s company through the mundane and the unforgettable—that have created the differentiation between my inner circle, acquaintances and internet friends. My best friendships have taken time to build and evolve, and—in many cases—time apart for individual exploration. Over the years, I’ve shared dinners and dance floors, fears and aspirations, new loves and agonising breakups, highs and lows in all facets of life, with people in emotional spaces where we mutually appreciate each other’s differences and work to understand nuances. Friendships that facilitated self-reflection and connection, that nurtured growth. These are the friendships that feel like home, whether we’re across from each other in a living room, or across the world sending memes to each other in one of the apps in the folders on our phones.