At least three of my organs plummeted through me when I found out my online best friend said one of her family members had to quarantine in their home…the same home I was planning to stay in for three weeks. Instead of my online friend and I easing slowly into in-person meetings, we thought a month-long stay was a bright idea!
My bus to see her was rapidly on its way and suddenly I had this quarantine news that completely froze my insides with panic at 8 am on a peak-summer morning. The pixels warped on my phone screen as I tried to reply to her messages whilst calling a taxi with a slight tremor in my hand. Were we calling it off? Were we going to go through with it? She left me with an “it’s up to you” and it’s a good thing we hadn’t met yet, because I wouldn't have seen how punchable her face was making me make the Big Decision.
Somewhere rattling around my chest were my lungs trying to even out. Inhale…Exhale. I reply to her texts.
Like Tarzan going vine-to-vine, the Taxi driver swerved through the city, its roundabouts and bridges, back to my house. Fleeting into and back out of my front door, I shoved the COVID test kits into my suitcase and we headed back to the bus station – not without the Taxi driver explaining to me why he no longer used a specific service provider for his wireless card reader. I couldn’t care less but it was the only thing distracting me from the hurricane of butterflies zooming around my abdomen; I knew I still had time to catch my bus, but…was it the right choice?
Six hours later, I walk through London much warmer with my yellow raincoat containing all the steam I was emitting under the July sun. The subtle smell of the nylon cooking me like foil on a rotisserie chicken was only apparent to me… or at least I hoped it was. I stole glances at my phone at the blue dotted path on Google Maps. Confidence was key to not look like a tourist and escape the eyes of any pocket-peeping people. I made it to the correct station and prayed to whichever God was on duty to make sure my phone remained connected to my data. My friend had to virtually hold my hand as I messaged her all the signage I thought was relevant to validate I was going the right way. I hate the Underground. I hate London. I miss my simple country lanes and direct journeys.
My distress was exacerbated by the slow meander of the buffering circle each time I tried to message her near the trains, responding to any message on Instagram, WhatsApp, and SMS. I would have even tried email if it was successful, I was that needy and pathetic. Eventually, I was blessed with sitting down again and was able to return any oxygen to my system at an even pace. Inhale…exhale. If I was obsessively monitoring the little blue dot on my map and each station we passed, it was none of anyone’s business. This was my first time traveling to London by myself, and the first time I was going to meet my online best friend since I slid into her Instagram DMs in 2018. It was summer 2022 and I was promptly reminded why I hate London but persisted for the sake of friendship, or whatever!
Forty pounds sterling and 10 hours later I met my friend’s mother and younger sister for the first time. Ironic, how I saw them before I got to see the actual face of the person I spoke to almost every day for about four years. Talking to her younger sister like we were already friends, the mother light-heartedly commented on our lightning-fast bestie energy. I was kindly guided to their car and I was going to finally visit her, her home, and her family.
Spending half of the day traveling without eating meant my appetite doubled in size by the time I settled into their house at 10 pm, which was the reason why I was mass-consuming her mother’s biriyani like a high-powered Dyson. Inhale…mostly inhale. The first time I saw my online friend's face in person, without pixels building her resemblance, I wasn’t expecting the timid awkwardness. She apologized that she couldn’t give me the hug she promised. Dramatic bitterness aside, I understood we had to wait until the quarantining was over – even if it meant we had to continue chatting through walls and screens. To be next door, so close to the person you’ve been waiting to see for years, and still somehow out of reach…what a bizarre feeling.
Three long weeks of living with 40 degrees Celsius heat, mountainous plates of biryani, two or three McDonald's tiramisu McFlurrys, a trip to Ilford, picking up the little sister from school, a dazzling voyage to Lidl, overspending on Korean lip products in London’s Chinatown, cumbersome train rides, a BTS MV marathon, an unfortunate cold pasta salad, and so much more. This was when I met her in the summer of 2022.
According to Suzanne Degges-White for Psychology Today, people may start or build online friendships due to a connection via shared interests or safety in anonymity. Degges-White states that,
“In an online environment, we are typically seeking out people who share our hobbies, interests, or experiences. We want to connect with people who reflect our passions or our feelings about topics that we value, such as social issues, political issues, or contemporary culture. We also like to connect with those who are experiencing the events or transitions that we are experiencing [...]
Another benefit of online friends is the freedom we feel to share information with those that we are unlikely to ever meet in person as we don’t fear later shame or that feeling of “retroactive embarrassment.” [...] We are unlikely to be seeing this person frequently, so we won’t be reminded of our vulnerability and personal revelations. Our “confessions” are limited to a containable space and shared with people we actually never have to engage with again, if we choose not to.”
Although there is a conversation about how meeting strangers on the internet has its disadvantages and dangers, it is also important to recognise where those connections may succeed and why. Based on Degges-White’s assessment, you can argue that developing online connections with like-minded people in like-minded circumstances or life stages can allow individuals to speak out their vulnerabilities in a space where they may not have been able to otherwise. In other words, online friendships can provide safety for marginalised groups where real-life spaces may fail them.
For some people marginalised by race, religion, gender, or sexuality, their current circumstances may not provide them with an environment where they can be explicitly true to their thoughts, feelings, identity, or insecurities. Therefore, the Internet can provide a corner of an individual’s life that is removed from their real life and can be present elsewhere. Whether that be in a Twitter thread, a Discord chat, or an Instagram comment section, there are opportunities for anyone to meet anybody with similar niche interests in the safety of their own home… within reason (I don’t encourage catfishing or other potentially dangerous encounters).
Finding someone you connect with from a chance encounter on a Reddit thread or TikTok fan cam can be like lightning in a bottle, something that is remarkable, rare, and bright, or something that can burn you very quickly if not careful. I was very fortunate to not only slide into the Instagram story DMs of someone that also collected K-pop enamel pins, but was in the UK also studying at university, the same age as me, AND also South Asian. These coincidences were electric. This was my lightning; my chance encounter where all the sparks were aligning and forming a long-term connection I did not anticipate.
After four years of almost talking to each other every day about BTS and books, international shipping prices and insecurities, fandoms and families, music and movies, watch parties and wistful vulnerabilities, she asked if I was free to stay at her home for a month. Like a good half-South Asian woman (she says sarcastically to herself), I asked my mum first if this was a bright idea or if I was racing too fast into a thunderstorm. With reassurance and a buzzing excitement thrumming in every gap between my ribs, I met her.
It was awkward, but we’re awkward anyway. An internet connection was once again our saviour and bonding tool even when we were supposed to be face to face. It’s partially naive to believe that smoothing out our sparks into a solid, tangible, in-person shape would be seamless and straightforward. It wasn’t for us in the beginning but that was okay – we had four years to prepare and both of our laptops to watch Mr. Queen during the quarantine.
When I met her in the summer, we had already grown up and out of our final years of University together. We built something new and shiny out of nothing but touch screens, bread puns, and keyboard smashing.
Online friendships can be some of the most reassuring bonds at the right time and place – when two profiles bump into each other on the same platform.
When LED screens spark lightning.
Separately, we connected.
Editors: Joyce P., Leila W.
Image Source: Hannah Govan