Discover more from Elly Says: Eat Oatmeal, Spread Love
how we show up when we can't show up: sending love (and memes) across the universe
a lifetime spent making friends on the internet has taught me you don't need to be up close to be connected to the people you care about.
In many ways, being isolated inside for a long time during this pandemic has reminded me of my childhood.
Until now, I’d forgotten or repressed just how much of my life between the ages of 8 and 18 were spent online, on various social media sites—Bebo, MySpace, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), blogging sites I can’t even remember the name of, Facebook, and Tumblr, then Twitter—making friends with people halfway across the country and sometimes across the globe, because I was trapped in my room and needed to know the world was bigger than me.
I didn’t have a lot of in real life friends growing up, but I got really good at making friends with strangers on the internet—learning how to ask people questions about themselves, telling them all the things about my life that I’d wished I could have told a best friend at a sleepover.
The internet was an escape hatch I’d stumbled upon and fallen down, like an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of vast, terrifying, and often incredible possibilities.
By the time I was 11, I had already spent hundreds of hours on a clunky computer powered by a tangle of chords plugged into the wall, making friends with people on MySpace. I found solace and kinship with people who also felt alone in their real lives but couldn’t find comfort in real life, or who were simply excited about being online when the internet was still relatively new and still so exciting and unexplored.
Some of those people are still good friends of mine, but mostly they’ve faded away. The point is, however, I find now, not that the friendships needed to last but that I needed an outlet, quite literally, to learn how to form them. I studied movies like You’ve Got Mail to try to think of the kinds of questions you ask someone you’re trying to be friends with—the kinds of things you say. I remembered people’s birthdays, pets’ names. I remembered the details of my friend Valerie’s favorite classes at her school in California, and my friend Juliette’s favorite songs to sing. I learned to remember their hopes and dreams, and to trust that it was safe to tell someone else my hopes and dreams, too.
I also learned how to make some sick, joyful memes from my MySpace days, when I’d just spend hours layering rainbow patterned photos on Adobe programs, like the goddamn emo goth scene kid I thought I was. But good things have come from it. Now I can make really good memes to send to my friends an adult!
Then in middle school, I got myself into hot water accidentally when I moved to a new school and didn’t know how to make friends in person after a particularly bad stint of bullying that left me scared to talk to anyone. So I did what I knew best, and I logged onto MySpace and friended this kid in my class, Colin. Then I started friending other people in my classes, like this girl Emily, who I was enamored with (*narrator voice* reader, what was actually happening is I was gay).
While it seemed normal and harmless to me to try to make friends with people over the internet, I found out quickly that people didn’t take well to such a small, simple gesture like a friendly message online. Emily spread rumors about how I was a lesbian who was trying to be perverted with her and other girls in school by going to their profiles. Colin edited our interaction to try to make it look like I was relentlessly stalking him or asking him out, printed it and handed it to all the kids in class, and brought it to the principal. I got called into her office for making people uncomfortable. I was mortified. It was the first and only time I saw my method of making friends online as something potentially bad or dangerous—something that felt scary and not okay.
But later that year, I met my friend Juliette in person, who I’d originally met on MySpace. We went to a Jonas Brothers concert together, and she was the second person in my life I ever told that I was experiencing abuse at home on a regular basis, besides our mutual friend Valerie. Even though she was technically only an “internet friend,” I felt like I could tell her things, because our friendship was deeper than my friendship with most people I knew in person and not through a screen. Later in high school and college, Juliette and I remained friends. When she moved to New York in college, we spent time at her apartment, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, and ate Italian food together at restaurants in SoHo. It felt nice to still be friends with someone who I’d first met through an instant message once upon a time—to put a face to the late night AIM messages. Now we’re both adults and she’s back in California, but we still talk from 3,000 miles away. She has a music career, and I have a journalism and writing career. She’s probably one of the oldest friends I have, and an example of someone who taught me what it meant to build love even across a divide—someone who taught me what it means to build a self.
Ah, middle school, the age of bad blonde highlights and white nail polish. And, of course, Juliette’s clip-in blue hair piece.
In high school, suddenly, I was the new kid at school after being homeschooled for a year and a half after intense bullying in three different public middle schools. I had trouble making friends again, but I had learned to deal with bullies by this time, and I knew that it wasn’t personal, it’s just how people are—and I also knew there are spaces in the world I could go and still have friends, no matter how lonely I was in school. So I retreated back to the internet as per usual.
I spent all night on Tumblr, making friends with other teenagers and college students who wrote poetry. I found and befriended writers whose words saved my life, people like Emelia who’s now in a band called Nah., and J. Jennifer Espinoza, a brilliant poet, both of whom I still keep in touch with now. I learned things about what kind of style I wanted to have when I could afford more expensive clothes. I made friends with Sarah, a girl from Oregon, who I would become friends with in real life when she moved to California for college at the end of my time in high school. We bonded over unrequited loves and One Direction, of course, like any teen girls do. I got close with people on the East Coast and I realized I wanted to move to New York from my Tumblr friends who lived there. I read stories about queer people that I wanted to write as a great journalist one day. I built my own hopes and dreams in the trenches of the online world.
And then, eventually, when I was 18 and finally moved 3,000 miles across the country to start my new life apart from my dysfunctional, abusive family, I actually learned how to make friends offline in a healthy way for the first time in my life. I learned how to lose friends. I learned what not to say at freshman orientation. What not to say when you’re hooking up with a girl. What not to ask people about themselves. What kinds of gifts people like. And what they don’t like. What people want to hear about your life—and what they feel is too much too soon. I forgot about my days of yore of making friends online…that is, until I graduated college and found myself in need of friends in Brooklyn who weren’t my college friends, when I reignited my love-hate relationship with Twitter.
There, I found some of my best friends in my life—people who I now consider my soulmates. And I found them the same way I’d found friends when I was creeping through MySpace as a middle schooler—by simply messaging people I admired and striking up a conversation. Just like that, my affinity for making friends easily online was back. It came in handy, and I found it much more helpful than trying to pull stunts like going to bars or events to meet people, which just didn’t seem to pay off and was decidedly not my scene anyway.
John was one of the first friends I made at least kind of sort of through internet connections after college and has remained, to this day, a person I love to stay up talking to on the phone, and bug any time I have a big life event that I need help navigating. The internet truly lifts us up where we belong. Er, love. Love does that.
These days, I send a lot more messages and memes to my friends than usual—which is truly saying something, because I already talked to my friends a lot online before. But I tried to make the majority of space in my life for seeing friends in person. After nearly two decades of being friends with people through a screen, I gained a specific craving and appreciation for being in the same room as the people I love. But now, with the pandemic raging on and no end to staying inside hunched over my laptop at my kitchen table (or my bed, or my desk, or my fire escape) in sight, I find myself relearning and reclaiming the ability to make friends and keep them over the internet.
Of course, I have many more tools now to make and keep people I love close than I did when it was the early aughts. My phone is more sophisticated than the Samsung flip I had then, my computer can be carried between rooms. The thing that remains the same is my commitment to build my hopes and dreams up, and to build them with the people I love and cherish.
Last week, my friend Emily and I Facetimed and did yoga on Friday evening. Yesterday, she sent me a Le Creuset meme of a tiny loaf of sourdough. I texted my friend Han when I realized they hadn’t posted to Instagram in a few days—something I know is a bad sign. I plotted about what furniture we’d have in our apartment with my friend Reina, talking about what we’d share if we ever live together. I bonded with my friend Caitlin over pictures of small animals in cowboy hats and how they both make us think of Mitski.
I held my queer book club and talked about the labor of figuring out your identity. I texted my friend Keah a meme that made me think of her. I yelled at my friend John about one thing we’re working on together professionally, and then he called me on Monday night, and I yelled to him, lovingly, about personal life stuff. I made myself a sardine hummus pita sandwich for lunch that day, and texted him a picture of it, because it’s what we always ate together when I’d co-work with him from his house last year when I was incredibly depressed, and it made me feel close to him when I can’t be. I told him to take care of himself the way I would if I were there.
In different groupchats I have with friends now, we’ve spent the pandemic discussing and dissecting queerness and formative sexual experiences. My friends and I send each other nudes and other emotionally vulnerable #content. In other groupchats, we come to each other for career advice. And in some, we share all the ways we feel we’re failing at life right now in ways we feel we can’t share with others publicly.
The meme in question that I sent to Keah, Han, and Reina last week because it felt perfect and encompassed the exact emotions I feel lately.
And in all of these online interactions I’m reminded of the power of long distance love, and the joys of learning to show up for each other in different ways when we can’t physically show up for each other. I think about all of the online friendships I’ve had over the course of my life, and how some of my oldest and dearest friendships were borne of a message across cyberspace, just to say “I see you” and to hope I could be seen, too.
I know a lot of us are losing hope and feeling powerless to the forces that be right now—wondering when the next time we’ll see the people we love or hold them in our arms is, worrying if all of the relationships we care about most will crumble before our eyes due to distance. And while I’ve certainly felt these pangs of fear over the last few months, I cannot bring myself to come to the conclusion that it’s true. I am the person I am because of the internet, and all of the kooky ways I learned to make friends using it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing now, even though I used to.
In truth, I do feel more distant from the people I love than ever, but I also feel grateful. Not in spite of the fact that this is all really hard—but because of it. Because it gives me, and you, and all of us, the opportunity to learn how to be there for each other in new ways—to find new ways to connect across the universe, whether it just feels like it when we’re miles apart, or whether we truly are. I feel grateful and hopeful to still have memes that remind me of my friends that I can send to them, and glad to still be able to send my friend a birthday ice cream carton using Caviar, and filled with the knowledge that I have learned how to love people through a screen before, how to write down their favorite things and send them messages that make them smile, and playlists that make them cry in the exact happy-sad way they need when they feel heartbroken.
Yesterday, Juliette texted me after seeing some of my posts on Twitter about bisexuality, and reminded me she’s always here to talk. How strange that this Internet Friendship That’s No Longer Just an Internet Friendship Even Though it’s Primarily Over the Internet At All Times has lasted 15 years and is still burning, I thought. I texted her back with a lot of love in my heart for the screens that still connect us all these years later.
So when I think about all of the distance between me and the people I love right now, sure, I feel a little sad. That’s fair. But I don’t feel desperate for connection, and I’m not grieving all the ways I’ve lost the ability to be there for my friends, or for them to be here for me. Instead, I feel assured that I am finding the best ways I can to connect with the people I love now. All the love languages I will build again.
And I am filled with an understanding that someday, whenever that is, when I touch the people I love again, I will touch them all for the first time in the most beautiful way. We will have been made new through this, and so will our friendships. And we will hold each other with so much more grace and reverence knowing exactly what it’s like not to have been able to for so long.