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My best friend and I chat more online than we do in person. Is our friendship doomed?

facts & arguments

Is our friendship doomed?

It occurs to me that my best friend and I catch up more on social media than with texts or phone calls, Alex G. Brown writes

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A little red dot with the No. 1 in the centre flags the corner of my screen. It's a message from my best friend: "How was your weekend?" This is a normal occurrence. We check in on each other weekly, and every time we do, I get that familiar feeling of comfort only a good friend can conjure up. "My weekend was so relaxing. Just what I needed," I type.

Despite these cozy feelings, there is some disconnect in our catching up with each other over the Internet as often as we do. We know each other's cell-phone numbers by heart and can talk to each other daily about anything – books we're reading, relationship problems, what we ate for breakfast, what our plans are for the weekend – but our interactions with each other, outside of planned one-on-one time, have developed into online conversations. In place of phone calls and even text messages, we use Facebook Messenger, we chat through Instagram stories, or we mutually "favourite" each other's most recent tweets. On my most recent birthday, I woke up to a special-occasion Instagram post, where she shared my photo and a heartfelt caption. So when her birthday arrived, I knew I couldn't just text – I had to share it with the world.

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My first realization that our friendship had been affected by our methods of communication came a couple days after New Year's. While scrolling through Twitter, I discovered this snippet she had posted just minutes before: "Started today by accidentally going into work and I'm ending it in the emergency room."

What?! I texted, worried: "Hey girl, just saw your tweet. Everything okay?"

The full disclosure that she was, in fact, okay, came through in a text message.

And it hit me: Had we become so reliant on social media that we didn't remove the filter for a crisis? Wasn't I on some sort of "to call in case of emergency" list?

At least I heard from her before she updated Twitter: "Emergency room update: I'm fine. Nothing serious."

A life online does circumvent some practical limitations in real life: She works in web publishing and I work in digital marketing. Given that our days are structured around open tabs and e-mail interfaces – and in different parts of town – it was inevitable that we would meet each other where we are, online.

And, since the objects of our mutual interests are also housed by Google Chrome, we often trade articles, share links to shoes to buy, or pass on anything that unearths a "this-made-me-think-of-you" sentiment. Last week, she invited me to an event to watch a feminist film, followed by conversation and drinks.

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"How do you feel about this?" (She inserted a live link.)

"Omg yussss" (which I followed with a big smiley emoji).

We expressed our excitement to each other in likes, emojis, and "yays." With small dings back and forth – prompted by the Facebook Messenger sound effects that are akin to cartoon-style twinkles on bright white teeth – we used technology to carry on our evolving 10-year friendship.

In the early years, we would have made these plans in person, or on the phone between day-long study bouts at a café or during bike rides, dates around desserts or introductions to new apartments we had each found and the roommates that came with them. In those years, she was there to impart wisdom when I broke up with my first love, to lend me a book for our English class or share a handwritten schedule from the boss at our part-time job.

I offered the same support in her moments of personal turmoil or delight. I wouldn't hear about how her wild night ended until we met up the next day to critique and catalogue every interaction with a cute boy, mutual friend or bartender. Our friendship is replete with stories, most of which, in the past, we retold over laughs in long afternoons in the park and late-night phone calls: "Are you up? Can I come over?"

Sometimes, I miss the simplicity of those days. Now, our interactions seem more conscious, deliberate, even. These feelings, I guess, are the consequence of establishing a life through web pages. But as we grow personally and professionally in an expanding digital world, we question if our real lives fit into this new story and if this online life, with all its formatting and curation, is as intentional or as true as the one we experienced before. Most importantly, though, we wonder: Everyone's connected, but are we maintaining connections in the ways we want to any more?

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The other day, while out shopping together in person, she and I chatted about many of the same things we had shared recently over the Web. My wedding planning is going well (hers too) and we remarked on the jewellery we might wear for the occasion. Observations about our online lives – such as "Oh, I shared that in my story last week" or "Yeah, I saw you posted that photo" – become prompts and helped give context to our conversations.

Later, we stopped for pastry and some coffee at a local café, as we had done so often in the past. "Cherry danish, right?" She nodded.

Remembering her favourite pastry made me realize that while we had mastered the expanding universe of communications – and now take full advantage of it – some things are only learned through time shared in real life.

I understood then that our friendship hasn't changed, now we just have more ways we can appreciate our time together, online and off.

Alex G. Brown lives in Toronto.

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