Why The Virtual Social Scene I Once Detested Isn't So Bad After All
These days I'll take all the texts and Zoom calls I can get!
Back in May 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, I wrote about Zoom fatigue and the ways my virtual “social life” was draining me of energy. Like many others, I was done with Zoom and FaceTime and Houseparty and any app that claimed to keep me connected. “Talking” via Facebook or Instagram was getting depressing, but as the summer turned to fall turned to winter 2021, I found myself needing those virtual connections more than ever. Instead of bringing me down, they were lifting me up.
The past year and a few months have been challenging in so many ways, and like many others, I’ve lost work colleagues and friends from college and childhood. Since there were no in-person memorials or mourning rituals, connecting and reconnecting with friends from the past about these losses has taken on a new importance. I’m not on TikTok (yet), and I’m too tired from working and taking care of a toddler to venture into Clubhouse territory (yet). Some say that Facebook is for “old people,” and I’m actually fine with that.
When you’re in your 40s and 50s, friends from the past can easily slip away, and throughout the last year, during a time when we’ve needed others more than ever, virtual connections have become a lifeline instead of a burden. “Online connections can make us feel less alone and part of a larger community,” says Irene S. Levine, a psychologist and “friendship expert” in Pleasantville, New York.
She says the downside of viewing people’s lives online is that so many people paint such a rosy picture of their lives, which might make others feel down about their own situation. I haven’t noticed too many people bragging about how fantastic their lives have been since the start of the pandemic, and there’s something about sharing — if not our misery, then our struggles — that is actually helpful when things get hard.
I started rethinking my aversion to virtual connections this winter, when a friend of mine whom I’d grown up with and known throughout my life passed away suddenly. I hadn’t been in touch with him in years, and during fall 2020 he’d reappeared on Facebook, and reached out. We started messaging almost daily. We laughed about the fact that he somehow remembered my parents’ landline from our middle school days. We reminisced about old times, about who was mean in high school, about who was kind. He suddenly became a constant presence in my life. And then … just like that … he was gone. His death came after I’d recently learned of the passing of a good friend from college. Both hit hard, even though I hadn’t seen them in years.
Through the messages with my childhood friend, it was as if no time had passed, although of course it had. I now have a stream of messages going back to September to look back on, and I’m thankful for those typed-out conversations, as sad as they make me feel. That communication was real, and I cherish it now. I can still hear his voice from all those years ago when I read them. There are several studies that show the benefits of virtual connections, especially as we get older or become more estranged from others. I’m not talking about falling in love with someone who is catfishing you. I’m talking about friends from the past or old coworkers or people who come back into your life, even if it is “just” via a device.
When my childhood friend passed away, I suddenly found myself reconnecting with other middle school and high school friends I hadn’t seen or spoken to in decades. This is what we had and how we grieved, through direct messages and texts. I was grateful for them all, and the stories and emotions we shared were real. And they helped. “We definitely all want [the pandemic] to be over,” says George Bonanno, a professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia who heads up the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab. “We have also learned that we can reach out to people more readily, though. There is no substitute for face-to-face contact, but this has opened up a new way to be with people.”
I still celebrate when I realize that what I thought was a Zoom meeting is actually just a regular old phone call (no makeup! no outfit changes!), and I would rather meet an old friend in person any day than type messages back and forth. Still, the last few months have shown me not to take any connection — whether it’s in person or via a tweet or on Zoom — for granted.
I’ve been on an epic text chain with six of my girlfriends that started back in March 2020, and even though I haven’t seen any of them in nearly a year, our never-ending stream of texts and emojis and memes has been a place for me to commiserate, laugh and feel close to friends that I’m separated from by distance and by this pandemic. “There is no substitute to being able to spend time with a friend,” Levine says. That may be true, but for now, I’ll take all the texts and messages I can get, and although I may not love Zoom calls, I’ll at least recognize that they’re better than nothing — until we can have the real thing again.