Some of my closest friends are people I’ve never met in person. Yet we’ve shared the most important and intimate moments of our lives. We’ve celebrated firsts together — the births of our children, our marriages, our novels and careers. We’ve mourned lasts in union — the deaths of loved ones, whether they were family or idols or the casualties of a disaster so tragic the effects reverberated like ripples across a virtual sea.
I love my social media BFFs, and I say this often — in real life and online — repeating the declaration with emphasis when someone laughs at me, or, if online, someone responds with a winking smiley face emoticon. I feel this love with an unbridled sentimental earnestness I wouldn’t be caught dead expressing in real life.
I’ve never been a hugger, or a hand-holder, and I’m always the one to offer a cheek, instead of my lips, when leaning in for a kiss. But online I’m affectionate, generously loving. I’ve told my social media friends many times that I love them. The day I announced the sale of my first novel, the posts of Congratulations! and Brava! and You did it! piled one on top of the other — hundreds of comments that left my face flushed with proud embarrassment for two days. Because I believed my online friends’ happiness for me was genuine, I thanked them. I told them I loved them. Hadn’t they been with me over the last year and a half? Online, yes, but so frequently did we interact, did they cheer me on (You can do it, Julia!), I often felt as if they shared a part of my consciousness. We counted together as the word count of my novel rose with each completed novel chapter, and, later, through every revision. We had realized my greatest dream — the publication of a book — together, and I still wonder if I’d have been able to spend all those late nights alone, away from my family, deliriously tired, if I’d have been able to finish the novel without my social media BFFs coaching me, reminding me to bash on.
I wasn’t always a lover. I spent the first 30 years of my life protecting myself, a necessity in my lifelong struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Every choice I made, big and small, depended on my need to avoid people.
I’ve always experienced life through what I call a “thin filter,” but, in my mid to late 20s, after a financially and emotionally difficult move to NYC, the struggles of which led me into a major OCD episode, my filter was paper-thin. For six years, I shunned people. I left my home a few times a week — a trip to the grocery store, dinner out with my husband. I may have fit the requirements for clinical agoraphobia. I avoided public spaces, venturing into Manhattan only a half-dozen times a year, despite the fact that I lived in sight of the Brooklyn Bridge. Social gatherings of more than 10 were anathema, certain to bring on a dizzying panic attack, and when I did spend time with people, it was in the structured environment of the writing workshops I taught in my home — no more than eight in a class.
My friends reading this essay may think: Impossible! Julia is so friendly! But most of my friends today have only known me since 2010, the year I fell in love with social media and created hundreds of relationships (as well as thousands of acquaintances) online. The year social media saved me from myself.
If you ask the people who know me in real life — the writers I see at New York literary events, my students, or the members of the co-working “quiet space” where I write each day — they’ll call me friendly, outgoing, maybe even gregarious. A charming conversationalist. The kind of person who can be warm with friends and strangers alike. And I can be, but only in two- to three-hour bursts. After the time limit expires, so does my social-emotional tolerance. Like Cinderella, her gown returning to rags, I undergo my own transformation, of an internal kind. I must retreat to the still, dark and quiet room inside myself.
I’m a closeted introvert. I crave daily social interaction, but I feel so much for, from and around people, that it quickly depletes me. A weekend away with friends gives me a two-day migraine. A 10-stop ride on the subway leaves me anxious and irritable, as if I’ve just endured a tense and silent group therapy session. When I’m immersed in a group of people, my mind is abuzz, 100 mph, wondering what Heather is thinking and feeling, and if Lena really is having fun, and doesn’t Justin look a little down, and is everyone comfortable, happy, satisfied, okay? I am keenly aware of every group’s dynamic — an obsession that makes me a skilled workshop leader but a flawed partygoer. I have, in my most obsessive periods, believed in my extraordinary ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling — a delusion that makes me a great character writer, but an exhausted human. I am a pleaser on a stratospheric level. In the few 9-to-5 jobs I’ve held, I’d come home nauseous with anxiety because I’d gone full-throttle hyper-observant morning all day. No SSRI or cognitive behavorial therapy or reminding myself, Relax. Calm down. You do not need to try so hard! has been able to change me.
When critics call our “connected” online culture a farce, claiming it breeds loneliness instead of community, I inwardly scoff, but I still “like” their articles — in sympathy mostly, wishing they could feel the authentic joy I feel each time I log on to Facebook.
I understand why many people, especially writers, who are often naturally introverted, don’t love the online world. Interactions can feel cold, other people snarky and dismissive, and when I first created my Facebook account (in 2010 — I was a late social media bloomer), I overanalyzed every one of my posts, feeling the judgment of so many pairs of invisible eyes. But it quickly became clear that my particular situation (I work from home) and personality (obsessive introvert) made social media my blessing in disguise. It is socializing on my own terms. I feel genuinely close to my online friends, but I can slip into a conversation, and slip out. I can log on, and log off. And, in my busy midlife years, when I am “having it all” — balancing professional success, a writing life and family — these are the only relationships I have time for.
Some days I receive a message from one of my online friends — a person I may never meet in person — most often through Facebook or Twitter. Many of these messages come from people, like me, who live, for one reason or another, in a bit of a bubble. They might be stay-at-home parents who spend most days in a house with two nonverbal children; or people confined to their home by a disability, or because they are recovering from trauma; they might live in a town where they haven’t met many writers or like-minded people; or they might be like me — a little agoraphobic, a lot anxious, a homebody, an introvert who prefers reading about adventures to exotic places (online and in books) rather than experiencing them firsthand. Those who live vicariously through others as I do, because my paper-thin filter makes it safer for me to live and love at a distance. These messages, and the virtual friendships that generate them (I hate to use the word virtual because they are very real), are also a kind of vicarious living. In sharing photos, and anecdotes of both joy and tragedy, and snippets of wisdom and inspiration, I’m transported, in a way that feels safe, into another life — a reminder that everyone’s story is significant, and that I am not alone.
I attended my first writer’s conference in 2012. For years, I’d found excuses not to attend the annual AWP conference, which draws more than 10,000 writers a year — I couldn’t afford the airfare, I was expecting a child — when, really, my main excuse was the anxiety of interacting with so many people for four long days, the anticipation of which brought on tremors of panic.
I walked down the aisles of that first conference bookfair and every hundred feet, one of my social media friends (people I’ve never met in person) recognized me and called out my name. Almost always, we embraced. And although I’m not comfortable with physical affection, the mutual excitement of seeing these so-called strangers who had made me feel liked and needed — the things we pretend we don’t need because they make us vulnerable — called for a hug. The relationships I’ve lived online, nurtured over hours of sharing, commiserating, and experiencing each other’s lives, they’ve allowed me to love, and be loved.