I would likely cringe if I ever remembered the password to my Yahoo! email account, as I was a prolific member of several Yahoo! Groups dedicated to worshiping an assortment of celebrity babes. Though these online clubs were ostensibly meant for sharing celebrity news and photos, the conversations would often turn personal and confessional: I saw posts sharing everything from romantic dissatisfaction to emotional turmoil following the termination of a pregnancy. The same social dynamics of face-to-face groups were mirrored on Yahoo!, complete with cliques, evident best friend pairings, and a bunch of lurkers like me who benefited from witnessing their engagements. It was my earliest look at how online friendships can be more than superficial and can, in many cases, facilitate a frankness that is rare in face-to-face interactions.
It would be almost 10 years before I started making my first friends online as I entered the digital space as a writer publishing ultra-personal essays about mental health. Messages about several of these stories resulted first in some lovely email exchanges which later turned into actual friendships. While crushing on a celebrity is mildly embarrassing bonding material, finding a friend to discuss the isolation of mental illness can be a literal lifeline for people who find themselves unable to discuss these issues in offline spaces. As the legitimacy of these friendships becomes obvious to more people, it opens us up to questions of what accountability in these friendships should look like, particularly for friends who are vulnerable or otherwise in need.
Earlier this month at the BBC’s Ouch blog, Charlotte Walker wrote about how finding a community online to discuss her bipolar disorder has given her the relief of finding common ground with others but also the stress of seeing conflict between members. The “mental health” tag on Tumblr is a source of some of the most cathartic art and dialogue on subjects like depression, self-harm, and suicide. When the mere mention of these topics often results in immediate and ham-handed interventions, having digital space to share feelings safely is liberating.
Larissa Pham, a writer whose work frequently features her own experiences of depression, suggests sharing feelings online is not meant to elicit a direct show of support. “It’s something I do to feel less alone, and I know it makes people feel less alone,” she says. “And I think there’s a big value to creating solidarity via that kind of gesture.” Sharing a feeling online is a way of giving that feeling space to be validated in a way it might not be in face-to-face interactions where many feelings remain taboo.
“Being able to just articulate something that society tells you not to is very powerful,” says Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist and contributing editor at the New Inquiry. “They aren’t seeking help as much as they’re looking for a social space where they can be heard.” It is for this reason that Jurgenson and others see the language of “real friends” and “Internet friends” as not only incorrect but dismissive of many people who forge these friendships. In the case of mental health issues, suffering people are often told repeatedly that their issues are not actually real. To say the friendships they form around those same issues aren’t real is doubly injurious.
Joseph E. Walther, a professor of communications studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who has studied online community engagement for decades, has found that these groups have tremendous benefits we often don’t consider. He says the most immediate benefit of going online for support is the ease with which we can find a critical mass of people with a shared experience. “Our families and face-to-face friends can be sympathetic, but they can’t always truly understand what we’re going through unless they’ve had the same problem themselves,” he says. “Online, you not only find people with similar experiences, [but] because they’re not in your immediate personal social network, several aspects of stigma go away.” Beyond alleviating the stigma of disclosure, online support eliminates the stigma of dependency because online engagements are more focused on mutual support than caregiver and dependent roles.
My friend Maryam is someone whose voice I have never heard and whose smile I have never seen. She exists as a pretty but serious avatar in my email inbox and on social media accounts. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from her regarding an essay I wrote about depression and language for the Toast. It was a message of gratitude and familiarity that arrived at a time when I felt particularly isolated. Connecting to someone whose experiences reflected my own was especially welcome at that particular moment. We began an email correspondence that consists mostly of long updates that are characterized by the kind of humor and honesty it might take years to develop with an offline friend.
During a commute home in April, I realized that it had been a while since we had written and my talent for assuming a worst-case scenario made me suddenly panic that she was dead. It was not too far-fetched a thought about a young woman who has frequent suicidal thoughts. We share no mutual friends, we live in different cities, and we don’t even have each other’s phone numbers, so I’d have no way of knowing. She is nearly a decade my junior, and though we speak as peers, I was suddenly struck by how I’d failed a good kid who had trusted me.
I breathed a sigh of relief after arriving home and finding her Tumblr recently updated. I made a note to email her once my oddly maternal panic subsided. “I do think though that pulling the truth out of ourselves is part of what makes those relationships special, for me at least,” she told me of her online friendships after I told her how I had thought she’d died and felt weird and self-conscious telling her so. “On the same note, I know people use that platform to lie about themselves.” Embellishment and straight-up falsifications create opportunities for us to get the kind of attention we want, but lies of omission can be used to evade the attention we need. This doesn’t take away from the process of painstakingly writing, erasing, and re-writing our experiences a dozen times in order to better express ourselves.
Walther sees the preoccupied concern with people lying in online communications not as an issue of intentional deceit but merely a different kind of self-presentation. In 1996 he developed the concept of the hyper-personal model of communication in computer-mediated spaces. “With more time for message construction and less stress of ongoing interaction, users may have taken the opportunity for objective self-awareness, reflection, selection and transmission of preferable cues,” Walter wrote in an article at the time. Unencumbered by nervous gestures, speech, or the need to respond at the pace of speech, our communications online are optimized to the mode of how we want to be heard. But this does not make them dishonest. For example, in a face-to-face interview with a hiring manager, people might wear clothing that they don’t ordinarily wear and speak more formally and agreeably than is typical, but it doesn’t make them liars. They are simply amplifying a particular aspect of their real personality for a certain end.
Our online relationships are sources of validation and care that are unlike many face-to-face interactions, but the need to respect boundaries and manage expectations is the same even if our physical space is not at risk. I connected to Maryam because she sought me out in a spirit of understanding rather than in a demand of assistance, but others have sent me exhaustive tomes asking for help that I simply couldn’t provide. Pham reported similar experiences. “We expect a lot more empathy from everyone because everyone seems so accessible,” she says. But accessibility does not mean permission, and it should not mean obligation either. “There is a finite amount of social care and attention that we can give to the world, but the Internet allows us to offer smaller gestures that aggregate to a lot more,” Jurgenson says.
The irony of my concern that Maryam was dead is that I would not have known the intimate details of her depression and suicidal thoughts had I only been her friend face-to-face for the short amount of time we’ve known one another. It is the fact that neither of us can call 911 on each other and a get a dispatcher in the correct city that facilitates the candidness of our conversations. So while I considered exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and emergency contacts, I realize we don’t need those material artifacts to offer meaningful help to each other.
Accountability in friendships experienced online does not mean being personally responsible for one another so much as mutually responsible to one another. We can share suffering without judgment but also without expectation of intervention. When we are released from insecurity and fear, we aren’t filtering our “real” selves. We are instead removing the visible and physical filters that have for too long obscured people’s deepest realities.