A Guide to Online Friendships
Hi, I’m Calder. I had an unconventional high school education centered around an online school with an online community, so I have had a lot of experience failing and succeeding at online friendships. I used to be very bad at maintaining friendships online, but I learned and improved over time, and I have helped new friends navigate the online environment. In this process, I have put a lot of thought into better understanding online friendships. I hope my thoughts can be helpful to you, both in social distancing times and beyond.
The main point
Being friends online requires you to do more than just have a relationship. It requires an extra level of awareness: it helps to know the specific challenges and opportunities that exist in an online environment, and it is good to know how to navigate this environment. The intent of this guide is to help you develop this awareness, so you can be more successful in your online friendships.
Here are the basic principles I want to communicate:
- Online friendships are most rewarding when there is frequent, meaningful communication.
- There are many reasons why this goal can be hard to achieve. You may have experienced some of these difficulties without being able to articulate them.
- I believe it is easier to achieve this goal if you become aware of these difficulties and learn to think deliberately about your own habits and assumptions.
I hope this guide will provide you with a mental model that helps you better navigate these aspects of your online friendships.
The goal of online friendships
As I said above, the main goal of online friendships is to have both of the following:
- Meaning: to have whatever kind of connection you are looking for in a friendship (whether that’s deep understanding of each other’s lives, creating interesting ideas together, or just enjoying each other’s company)
- Frequency: to get enough of the connection you are looking for in a friendship
This is the goal with in-person friendships too, but since those are usually easier to maintain, you don’t have to think as much about what you’re trying to do.
Why it is hard to talk frequently online
Let’s start with frequency. You may have felt it is hard to stay in touch with your online friends as often as you’d like. Why is it easier to stay in touch in person than online? Your response might be, “because in-person communication is more natural.” That is true, but we need to understand exactly what is more natural about in-person communication — and what is unnatural about online communication. Knowing this will make it easier to deal with the challenges involved.
Imagine you are in your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, or whatever in-person social environment you are used to. You notice a friend, and you start talking to them. You might think of that moment as consisting of two steps:
- Notice your friend
- Start a conversation
But it is not that simple. A few more things happen between the moment you see them and the moment you start the conversation.
First, after noticing your friend, you gauge whether they seem available to talk. Are they alone or already with someone else? Do they seem occupied? If so, does it seem like it would be okay to interrupt them? What is their body language communicating? These questions (probably asked and answered unconsciously) help you determine whether to approach them for a conversation.
Once you have determined that your friend seems available to talk, you walk up to them. They notice you; you both recognize each other’s presence. You both communicate with body language that you are ready to interact with each other. Then, finally, you start a conversation.
So, the steps really look something like this:
- Notice your friend
- Assess whether they are available to have a conversation
- Recognize each other and indicate that you would both like to have a conversation
- Start a conversation
Even though the middle two steps might happen quickly and unconsciously, they are essential to social interaction. From years of in-person communication, we become attuned to whether interactions are welcome or not. These two steps tell us whether a conversation is welcome, and thus make us feel comfortable starting to talk.
Online, however, the middle two steps basically do not happen. Step 2 (assessing) is hard online because most services have no way to see whether someone is available to talk. Usually, the most you get is information about whether a person has been active recently, but knowing that a person talked to someone else ten minutes ago doesn’t tell you whether they’d like to talk to you now. And step 3 (approaching) is hard because there is no good way to approach someone before an online conversation. Before you start talking to someone online, they are not aware you are there, and they are not expecting you to start a conversation — you are popping into their life with no context. Starting an online conversation without steps 2 and 3 can be awkward: it’s like walking up to someone’s door and starting to talk at it, without knowing what they are doing in there, whether you are bothering them, or if they are even there at all.
So, because it goes against our social instincts to start talking without any context or mutual awareness, you might hesitate to reach out online. A lot of normal conversation starters — hi; how are you doing; here’s something interesting that happened to me — can feel weird to send online. You might feel like you need a good reason to initiate contact online, even when most in-person conversations happen just because people feel like talking.
Also, step 1 — noticing your friend in the first place — is harder online. In the real world, we are all moving around in the same physical space, and so we sometimes end up coming near each other and noticing each other. In the virtual world, this does not really happen. Online, you only talk to your friends if you think to talk to them (or if they think to talk to you). If a friend is on your mind — because you talk to them a lot, or for any other reason — you might think of them unprompted. Otherwise, though, you need something prompting you to think of your friends. And because there may not be many things in your environment that prompt you to think of your online friends, it is easy to forget to talk to them.
Two main forms of communication
Let’s step back for a moment. All those difficulties we just talked about apply to direct conversations, which are only one of the two main forms of online communication. Social media, the other main form of communication, has its own challenges. First, to get the terms clear, here’s what I mean by “social media” and “direct conversations”:
- In social media, you share with many people what is going on in your life, and they can respond with publicly visible comments or reactions. (Facebook status updates, Instagram posts, Tweets, etc.)
- Direct conversations work like talking in real life: you communicate with one person or group, no one else can see what you are saying, and it is easy to talk for a long time. (Phone calls, video calls, messages, emails, etc. Anything of this form counts as a direct conversation, even if it is part of a social media platform — for example, direct messages on Instagram are still direct conversations.)
These are the two main tools at your disposal for achieving the goal of frequent, meaningful communication. Here’s the problem: social media makes it easy to communicate frequently, but it tends not to feel as meaningful. Direct conversations usually feel more meaningful, but as we’ve seen, it can be harder to have them frequently. There may be no form of online communication that makes it easy to have both frequency and meaning — but, if you try, you can use the tools you have to meet both goals. (Or, you might already be good at this, and you don’t have to try!)
Let’s look more closely at why the two forms of communication are better for different things.
Why social media is better for frequency
If you want to stay in touch with all your friends directly, you have to start conversations with each of them separately. This is hard, as we saw earlier, and the more friends you have, the harder it gets to remember each of them regularly. So, if you are only staying in touch with someone through direct conversations, it can be easy to go a long time without talking to them. With social media, though, all you have to do is make posts and scroll through the posts you see, and that can keep you in touch with all your friends. Once you and a friend have connected on social media, you don’t actually have to think of them in particular to stay in touch with them — by doing your posting and scrolling, you’ll just end up seeing what they decide to share, and vice versa. This makes it easy to stay in touch frequently without requiring as much thought.
Why direct communication is better for meaning
When you are talking to one person, you can focus all your attention on the depth of one relationship, but when you are communicating with many people at once, it is harder to give that much attention to each relationship. So, because you might not be relating as deeply with each person, interactions with large groups may feel less meaningful. Also, when you are talking with many people, there might be fewer things in common that everyone can relate to, so there might be fewer topics that feel meaningful. The fewer people your words need to connect to, the more meaningful conversations tend to feel.
Social media follows this pattern. If you are sharing posts with a dozen close friends or family members, you can keep your relationships with them at heart and find real meaning in your interactions. On the other hand, if you are sharing a post with hundreds or thousands of people from diverse corners of your life, the relationships you have with each person can feel abstract and distant. The post becomes just about the content of your life, not the personal connection you have with everyone. When all sorts of people can see your post, you might not feel comfortable going into depth about your personal experience. And, because social media comments sections are public and not built for having long conversations, it is harder to have meaningful interactions there.
How to have both frequency and meaning
So, if social media is better for frequency, while direct conversations are better for meaning, how do you have both? There are a number of strategies. The most obvious strategy is just to use each form of communication for what it is naturally best at: you can use social media to get a regular overview of how people are doing, and when you feel like going into more depth, you can initiate a direct conversation. Another option is to focus on one of the two forms of communication and use it for both frequency and meaning. This means either making social media more meaningful than it usually is, or having direct conversations more frequently than you might naturally have them.
First, let’s look at the strategy of making social media more meaningful. It might still be impossible to make social media as meaningful as having regular one-on-one conversations with each of your friends, but you can make social media much closer to that by limiting whom you are connecting with. If only select people see your posts, you will share more in common with all of them, so it can feel appropriate to present your life in more depth and truth. You can use different groups or accounts for different communities of people, to give you finer control over which posts are associated with which relationships. For example, many people have two Instagram accounts, one that is public and one for closer friends.
Now, let’s look at the strategy of having direct conversations more frequently. This is the best strategy for having the most meaningful interactions, but for it to work, you need to be good at reaching out to your friends regularly and responding to them when they reach out to you. You may need to form new habits and change how you think about online communication. This strategy of focusing on direct conversations is the one I have the most experience with, so I will go into more depth about how to have direct conversations frequently. Even if you are using a different strategy with a greater focus on social media, this discussion will probably still be relevant to you, since you’ll probably want to have some direct conversations.
How to have frequent direct conversations
Use social media as a conversation-starter
Even if you are using an online communication strategy focused on direct conversations, social media can still play a useful role. Social media can be like the physical environment where you encounter your friends and see what they’re doing. If you are regularly seeing your friends’ posts, it is easy to keep them on your mind and remember to talk to them. A post can be a natural starting point for a direct conversation, since it gives you context: you have something to talk about, and you aren’t just starting a conversation out of the blue.
Set goals or reminders
To get your friends regularly on your mind, you can set a specific goal for how often you will talk to them or check your messages. You can make reminders for yourself if it is helpful. You can also designate certain activities as things that will make you think of your friends: for example, you might try to think of them whenever you eat lunch, in the same way that you’d naturally think of them then if you often met for lunch in person.
Plan conversations with friends
A great way to ensure you talk with a friend frequently is to agree with them on a regular time to talk. It is easier to remember to talk to each other if you are both expecting each other to remember.
Use group chats to create more opportunities to talk
In a group chat with many people, it is easier to talk frequently because there are more people starting conversations. While it can be hard to initiate contact, you don’t have to do it as often yourself if a lot of people are doing it. Then, once someone does start a conversation, it is easy to feel connected by joining in or just watching other people talk.
However, you should keep in mind that conversations in larger groups tend to feel less meaningful. You might want to use group chats as jumping-off points for one-on-one conversations.
Indicate when you are open to talk
Step 2 in the process of starting a conversation — assessing whether a friend is available to talk — can in fact happen online. There are ways of indicating that you are free to have conversations, which will make your friends more comfortable reaching out to you.
One good way to do this is to use things like Discord audio channels, Facebook Messenger Rooms, or the app TTYL. If regular messages and calls are like talking into someone’s door without knowing what they’re up to, these services are like social common rooms: you enter the room if you’re interested in talking, and your friends can see you’re in there and come start a conversation. This is a more natural way to interact.
Most online platforms do not have a built-in way to explicitly say that you’re interested in talking, but you can come up with creative ways to do this, such as by editing your profile.
Change your habits and assumptions about reaching out
It is good to become comfortable starting conversations out of context. Because you cannot always have the social context that tells you conversation is welcome, you will have to trust instead: trust that your friends want to talk to you, trust that they want to know about your life and your inconsequential thoughts, and trust that your notifications do not bother them even if they are unable to respond right now. This trust will help you start conversations online, and it might also help you become closer friends.
It can be hard to overcome the worry that people do not want to talk to you or that what you have to say is not significant enough. One thing that can help is to consider from the recipient’s perspective: if one of your good friends reached out to you unexpectedly, would you be happy to talk to them? Would you be happy even if their message were not a topical comment or necessary for some purpose? I expect you would, and I expect your friends would feel the same way about you. If you are hesitating to send a message, it can also help to consider whether you would hesitate to say the same thing in person.
Since you and your friends will all have to find ways to initiate contact, it might be helpful to recognize this challenge together. You can all accept: starting conversations with no context feels strange, but we are doing it anyway because we want to stay in contact as much as we can. If you know that your friends have accepted this weirdness, it will feel less weird to reach out to them. It can be especially nice if you all agree (1) to respond when you are able and interested in talking, and (2) to communicate clearly when you are unable to respond or not interested in talking. If everyone commits to taking responsibility for their communication, you can know that if you reach out to someone and they don’t respond right away, it may just be that they are busy or have a lot on their emotional plate.
We have covered the core social reasons why it can be hard to initiate and maintain direct conversations, but there are a number of other difficulties that might affect you. Some of these might feel obvious to you, or they might not feel particularly challenging, but remember that different people are dealing with different issues. Something that you find easy might be hard for one of your friends, and it can help them if you are keeping their challenges in mind too.
Being together without talking
When you are with your friends in person, it is easy to be together without doing anything together. You can sit around a table and work quietly on your own projects or studies; you can eat a meal together without much conversation. This time is valuable for our social wellbeing: being with friends provides essential human contact no matter how much interaction there is. Depending on how you are feeling, silent togetherness can be the best thing.
Online, though, pretty much all contact involves doing something together: having a conversation, playing a game, etc. There are plenty of online platforms made for communicating with your friends, but I don’t know of any platform made just for being with them. However, you can still try to approximate this feeling. One way to do this is to have a video call without much talking. You and your friends can do your work or studying or meals or whatever else with a call going, and you will still have some sense of being together while going about your separate activities. It might feel weird, but it’s worth a try.
Staying connected if you are struggling emotionally
If you are having a hard time, you might be less likely to talk to your friends. There are a few possible reasons for this:
- If you are overwhelmed by your feelings or your situation, you might just not remember to talk to your friends.
- If you are ashamed of your emotional state, you might not want to talk to your friends because you do not want them to see that you are struggling.
- If you are dealing with low self-esteem, you might not contact your friends because you think they would not want to talk to you.
- You might also not contact your friends if you think your emotional state would make you a downer to talk to.
Being connected online makes all of this harder. When you are struggling, it already takes more emotional effort to reach out and maintain contact, and this difficulty is amplified by the challenges of online communication. There are a few reasons for this:
- Emotional struggles and online communication each create barriers to staying in touch. The barriers from both of these together could just be too hard to overcome.
- You might be less inclined to reach out for conversation and support if you expect it will feel less real and intimate online.
- If you are hesitant to interact with people because of your emotional state, you can avoid your friends much more easily when you are not seeing them in person.
- Because many social cues are not communicated well online, it is easy to misinterpret people and think they do not want to talk to you when they actually do.
- Also, because many social cues are not communicated well online, your friends might not be able to see that you are struggling, so they might not know to reach out to you.
- Being together in person without saying much can be soothing and grounding, but it is harder to have that feeling of silent togetherness online.
So, if your friends are online, it is easy to become distanced from their care and support when you need it most. Keeping this fact in mind can be helpful: if you are aware that it is inherently hard to stay connected online through emotional struggles, you might approach this challenge with a better perspective. If you remember all the reasons why it can be hard, you might be able to understand your own experience better, and maybe change your approach. Always remember that, while online contact is not as good as in-person contact, it is way better than no contact at all. Even if you cannot be together physically, friends can still give you care and support and human connection that is essential to your mental health.
Given these challenges, you should be especially mindful to reach out to your friends if you suspect they are going through a hard time. Notice which of your friends are not talking much and consider why that might be: in some cases, people are just busy or not as interested in talking online, but it could be that they are having a hard time and might like to talk. They might hesitate to reach out, and they might doubt that people want to talk to them, so it can be a great comfort if you initiate contact and demonstrate that you do want to talk to them.
Hesitating to reconnect after falling out of touch
If you have not talked to someone in a while, you might be apprehensive about reconnecting with them. There are a few reasons you might feel this way:
- You might worry that, because they haven’t reached out to you in all this time, they might not want to talk to you anymore.
- You might feel ashamed that you were absent, or you might feel like you let them down by falling out of touch. This shame might make it harder to talk to them again.
- You might worry that you will have to explain why you were gone if you get back in touch, but “I got trapped in an unconscious psychological loop about reconnecting with you” doesn’t feel like an appropriate explanation.
All of these factors can feed back on themselves. The longer you have gone without talking to someone, the more you might worry they don’t want to talk to you, the more ashamed you might feel about not talking to them, and the more you might feel like you have no explanation for why you were gone. These concerns can build up over time to be a big obstacle, even when the original reason you fell out of touch was just that you were busy. You might worry that a friend hasn’t reached out because they don’t want to talk to you anymore, even when the only reason they haven’t reached out is that they worry you don’t want to talk to them anymore.
So, if there is a friend you want to talk to but haven’t in a while, think about whether you have fallen into this trap with them. Identify what feelings or assumptions might be holding you back. If you have been out of touch with someone for a while, you might not remember clearly what you are missing, and so you might focus too much on your worries while forgetting how nice it is to talk to them. Try your best to shift your focus away from the possible negatives and to the more likely positives of being with your friends.
If you notice that a friend has not been in touch for a while, it can be good to reach out to them in case they are being held back by these worries. If they know that you would like to see them, they might feel more comfortable getting back in touch. If a friend rejoins an online group after being absent for a while, they might be nervous about it, and they might wonder if anyone cares, so it can mean a lot if you express that you are happy to see them. If it seems appropriate, you might also invite them to talk about what was going on in their life that kept them away. However, be mindful about how you talk to them: you do not want it to feel like you are interrogating them about why they were gone. Make sure they feel welcome; they should know you are asking because you care about their wellbeing.
Fewer shared experiences
When you are with your friends in person, you experience a lot together: other people, things in your surroundings, the weather, shared activities, etc. This provides a lot of conversation material. When you are apart, you have fewer shared experiences, so you might have fewer things to talk about. You might also have fewer experiences prompting you to think of them in the first place.
However, while living apart from your friends takes away some shared experiences to talk about, it also adds new things to talk about: since you are in different environments, there are more unique things to share about what is going on in each of your lives. Of course, you can also talk about many of the things you would talk about in person: your shared interests, your ideas and opinions, etc. If you are having trouble thinking of things to talk about, you could do an activity that gives you something to talk about, like playing a game or watching a movie together. Social media is also helpful here: if you are seeing your friends’ posts and staying up to date with their lives, you have more to talk to them about.
We all know how to communicate in person, but we have to learn to use any form of online communication. Some people have an easier time learning new technologies than others. If you have trouble figuring out an online platform your friends are using, you might not be drawn to participate as much. If people do not consciously try to include you, you might be left out.
So, if you are familiar with the technology that you and your friends are using to communicate, it is good to make yourself available to help them learn it. If you are unfamiliar with the technology, you should feel comfortable asking your friends for help. It might be a good idea to designate one or a few people as contact points for anyone who needs help, so if anyone is ever confused, they know whom to ask. It is usually most effective to explain technology on a phone or video call, ideally with screen sharing.
Also, if someone is still getting comfortable with the technology, you can help them by making sure they are included in conversations. To help them keep up to date, you might want to contact them using another means of communication they are already familiar with (such as texting or phone calls).
Dealing with relationship difficulties online
Maintaining any relationship takes care and attention, and sometimes this can involve having uncomfortable conversations. These conversations can be hard to have no matter what, but it is a lot easier to avoid them online. This means that some issues can go unaddressed. So, you could have more challenges with your friendships online than in person.
Discussing these issues in depth would merit a whole other guide, which I am not really qualified to write. This guide is mainly about staying in touch online; it is not about the deeper issues of repairing and tending to friendships.
Lack of interest in online communication
Some people might just not be as interested in staying in touch online, and this is fine. If someone has not wanted to participate much, and you know they are still doing okay, let them be. Or, consider how else you might communicate with them: even if they aren’t interested in certain forms of online communication, they might still like to have a phone call, or they might like to meet in person if that’s possible.
Forms of direct conversations
When you’re with friends in person, there is only one way to have a direct conversation: talking. Online, there are multiple forms of direct conversations, and it can be useful to consider how you want to use each of them.
The first main distinction is between synchronous communication, where conversations happen in real-time, and asynchronous communication, where you can take a while to collect your thoughts and respond. Phone calls and video calls are synchronous. Emails are asynchronous. Messages can be either, but usually people treat them as synchronous.
Among the forms of synchronous communication, there is a tradeoff: the ones that feel closest to in-person communication are also the least flexible. Consider video calls. When you are able to see and hear your friends, you can feel a sense of real connection with them and pick up on their expressions and social cues, and when you can talk, it is easier to express your ideas and feelings. However, if you want to have a video call, you need to be in a place where you can talk aloud without disturbing anyone, your internet speed needs to be fast enough, and you might need to have a block of time open for the conversation. While messages take more effort and feel more distant, you might be able to message practically anytime and anywhere.
So, as you go down this list —
- Audio calls
- Video calls
— conversations becomes more fluid and give a greater sense of personal connection, but there are also more limitations. If you want to maximize the feeling of meaning and connection, go with the farthest-down item on the list that everyone in the conversation is capable of using.
Asynchronous conversations (emails, as well as letters and sometimes messages) are different: we don’t expect them to feel like in-person conversations. We expect an email exchange to cover a longer period of time, and we expect emails to feel more like writing and less like talking. This allows us to use them for different things: emails are best when you have a lot to say or you want to give more focused thought to what you are saying. Compared to messages and calls, there is less interruption when you are writing an email, and there is less pressure to respond immediately, so you have more room to explore your thoughts and feelings. Dedicating your attention to another person for a long time can give a special feeling of connection to them. However, since you do not see or hear them, and you are not together at the same time, emails do not give the same feeling of presence that calls (or even messages) do.
To best maintain frequent, meaningful communication, you will probably want to use multiple — maybe even all — of these forms of communication. You can read the following sections for more details on some difficulties involved in calls and messages, and for some strategies for using calls and messages most effectively. (There is no section for email because I have less experience staying in touch with friends through email, but you will want to consider if you’d like to use emails, or even letters, to stay in touch too.)
Messaging can often feel less meaningful than the other types of synchronous conversations. This is mainly due to the differences between messaging and talking — and so, most of the ways to make messaging feel more meaningful involve making it more like talking. Let’s look at some specifics.
What is communicated in messages
In messages, you cannot hear each other’s tone of voice or see each other’s facial expressions and body language. A lot of the nuance of in-person communication is lost in text. However, you can still communicate some expression in your messages. When you’re talking, you can say the same words in many different ways to express different feelings, and the same is true for writing: to express different feelings, you can vary formatting, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, emojis, line breaks, and more. Ideally, the same personality you have in real life will come through; people should feel like they are talking to you.
You might be used to sticking to a particular style when writing messages, but this can limit your expressive ability. Consider whether you usually try to make your messages follow certain rules, and evaluate whether any of these rules might be unnecessary or restricting what you’re able to get across. For example, if you always try to use proper capitalization and punctuation, you might have a harder time communicating a more casual or emotive tone. Just like when you’re talking in person, the words themselves don’t have to do all the work of communication.
A conversational tone
Calls and in-person conversations give a sense of presence: you feel together with your friends as you’re talking to them. Messages can feel more distant and disconnected. Of course, this is partly just because you can’t see or hear each other, and there’s nothing you can do about that. However, you might also feel a disconnect because people express themselves differently in writing than in speech. We are often accustomed to writing in a more formal tone than we use when talking, and we can sometimes use this writing voice in our messages. When messages are more formally written, they feel less like talking, and they may feel less present and less emotionally connected.
So, it is good to be aware of how you are writing your messages and how other people might interpret them. For example, you might want to consider where to include punctuation, since your friends might feel that messages with all the correct punctuation are less conversational and less present. Also, long messages can sometimes feel like prepared statements (even when they aren’t), so if you’re writing a lot of text and you want it to feel conversational, it can be good to make sure you are still being as spontaneous as you might be in shorter messages. (Or you could split it into multiple messages, so it feels more like you are thinking aloud.)
The effort involved in messaging
You just can’t express yourself as easily when you have to use a keyboard, and this is especially true for small touchscreen keyboards. The extra effort involved in writing makes it harder to express yourself from a direct, intuitive, emotional place. It takes longer to figure out how to say things when you have to focus consciously on what words to use. This extra effort also means that people might be less likely to talk about deeper topics that require typing long, thoughtful messages.
This issue is one more reason why it can be nice not to include all the correct capitalization and punctuation: you can write faster when you don’t have to press as many keys, and it is easier to express yourself when you aren’t worrying about typographical correctness. You can also make messaging faster by using a physical keyboard whenever possible.
You can put as much time as you want into crafting a message. This can occasionally be useful if you are saying something sensitive and you want to make sure it is right. However, you might find yourself trying to perfect all your messages before you send them, making sure everything is well-written and free from mistakes. Focusing too much on the quality of your messages can distance you from the interactions you are having. So, try to treat messaging like talking: when you are talking, you say things imperfectly all the time, and it doesn’t matter. Typos and awkward phrasing are not big problems; as long as people can easily understand you, it’s fine. If you use a messaging platform that allows for editing messages, you can also fix something later if you really need to; this puts even less pressure on you to get it right the first time.
Permanent or temporary messages
Messages are often preserved indefinitely. This can be nice, since it lets you revisit past conversations and save good memories. However, this fact might also change how you feel about writing messages: if you know that whatever you say might last for a long time, you might care more about what you say in messages than you do in person. This might make you self-conscious and cautious about the things you say. If this is an issue for you, you might want to use a service like Snapchat that deletes messages after they are read.
Compared to messages, calls are better at creating a feeling of presence and connection. When you can hear or see someone, it feels more like you are there with them. Calls let you focus your whole attention on someone for a while; this extended personal connection makes it easier to have more meaningful conversations.
Of course, calls have their own problems. When we were looking at problems with messaging, we saw that we could deal with most of them by treating messaging more like talking. But because calls are talking, some issues with calls are harder to solve, and the main solutions just involve switching to a different kind of talking — video vs. audio call, one-on-one vs. group conversation. There aren’t any clear-cut better options; there are just tradeoffs, and you can choose which option is best at each moment. Let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of each choice.
Video call or audio call
The advantage of video calls is obvious: because you can see each other, you can pick up on many more social cues and emotional expressions, and because it can feel more like you are there with your friends, video calls can give a greater sense of presence and connection than audio calls can. Audio calls may give less of a sense of connection, because you can only hear each other. However, because video calls suffer from tech issues more, video is less reliable. While video calls can give you a greater sense of connection than audio calls, they are also more likely to stop working and interrupt that connection.
This tradeoff also applies to social cues. In physical conversations, we respond both consciously and unconsciously to minute details of each other’s voices and facial expressions. Video calls let us pick up on more of these social cues, which can help us feel emotionally closer to our friends. However, because of how much data it takes to transmit video, it is also more likely that these social cues will be disrupted: faces can become blocky and voices can become laggy. When you can see or hear someone without being able to sense fine social cues, there is a weird kind of emotional disconnect, and the interaction can feel less fulfilling.
One other drawback to video calls is that you have to look at a screen for a long time. In regular in-person conversations, we aren’t staring at each other 100% of the time — it is normal to look around and look away from the people you’re talking to. But in video calls, for some reason, we feel compelled to keep staring at the screen for the entire time: breaking our gaze away feels more like cutting the personal connection. So, if you are sensitive to looking at screens for a long time, video calls can feel more physically draining than audio calls.
So, if you really want to feel the closest connection to your friends, and you are willing to accept a potentially inconsistent connection along with a lot of screen time, go with a video call. If you prefer a more reliable, but possibly less deep, feeling of connection, and you prefer not to look at a screen as long, an audio call is better.
One-on-one or group conversation
As we discussed before, one-on-one conversations may feel the most meaningful, since you can focus all your attention on one relationship. However, talking in a group can just feel meaningful in a different way, and there are some conversations that happen in groups that could never happen in person. Group calls can also be easier to manage: if you want to have a group call, you just need to make one plan for everyone, while if you want to talk to each of those friends individually, you have to make many different plans.
However, group calls don’t have many of the features that make group interaction work in person: you can’t orient your friends in 3D space; you can’t see and hear who is talking where; you can’t pick up on as much body language; you can’t sense who is trying to talk to whom. You have probably experienced all the awkwardness that results from this.
So, the main factor in choosing between one-on-one calls or group calls is just whether you want to interact one on one or in a group. You’ll probably want to have some of each. However, if you really want to avoid awkwardness, one-on-one calls are better. And if you want to stay in touch with a lot of friends without keeping track of a lot of plans, then group calls are probably better.
A system for regular group calls
If you and your friends do want to have regular group calls, it can help to decide together on a schedule or system. The simplest solution is to set a regular schedule and follow it for every call. However, it can be hard or impossible to find a time that works for everyone, and people’s schedules change, so always calling at the same time tends not to be the best strategy. It works better to call regularly but have a range of time to choose from: for example, you might plan to call once a week, but determine the day and time for each week depending on people’s availability.
To find out when your friends are available, you could just ask everyone, but it is usually easier to use a timing poll like When2meet or Doodle. When you are deciding on a time, take into account not only the number of people available at a given time but also which people are available: if someone has not been able to talk for a while, it is good to prioritize times when they are available. The goal is for each individual to be able to come to calls regularly, not for each call to have the maximum number of people.
Once you decide on a time, make sure to announce it somewhere that everyone will see. You might want to designate one person to be in charge of scheduling calls and making announcements, since that makes it more certain that someone will always remember to do it. You could also rotate this responsibility.
Stay up to date with conversations
Make sure you are aware when your friends are communicating. This means seeing the messages they send: check your messages regularly or keep your notifications on. If you need to turn your notifications off so you can focus or sleep, remember to turn them back on when you are done. If you want to have group calls, make sure you see when your friends are making plans for calls, and make sure you get call notifications if you want them.
Being aware when your friends are talking is important not only because it helps you stay connected but also because your friends will be more inclined to reach out if they know someone is there to respond. You don’t want sending a message to feel like shouting into the void.
You might have to take multiple time zones into account when scheduling things. For mentioning the times of events, it is easiest if you agree on a single standard time zone to use for everything, since then everyone only needs to learn one conversion (their time zone ↔︎ standard time zone) instead of many. For example, my online high school community scheduled everything in US Pacific Time, even though we lived all across the world.
Every Time Zone is a helpful website for visualizing and converting time zones.
How to feel if you fail
If you have trouble maintaining your friendships online, you might feel bad about yourself and worry that you are not being a good friend. This feeling is understandable, but it is an unhelpful thought pattern to get into. Online friendships take practice, and practice involves failure. As you would with any other thing you are learning to do, make an honest assessment of what aspects of online friendships you are good at and what aspects you need to improve upon. Stay kind to yourself if you have not done everything you hoped you would. Then, figure out how to move on: how will you change your approach?
Probably, you care about your friends as much as ever — but the ways you are used to expressing this care do not work online. You have some habits that are useful for maintaining friendships in person, but these habits did not develop to work in an environment where it is easy to forget your friends and you have no indication that they want to talk to you. You will have to develop new habits online. And if it takes time, that is okay. It is never too late to get back in touch with your friends.
Talk about these topics with your friends
While you might find this guide useful on your own, every point will be much more effective if you talk about it with your friends. If you talk openly about online friendships, you can support each other as you all manage the difficulties involved. If everyone agrees to follow certain strategies, the strategies will be more powerful, and if you assess together how well the strategies are working, you will be able to evolve better ones over time.
I hope this guide can help you in some way, even if all it does is give words to experiences you are familiar with. While online friendships may never replace in-person contact, it really is possible for them to be long-lasting and fulfilling. You just need to get used to a new way of thinking about human connection. T
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