‘Miss Your Face! Drinks Soon!’ Has Social Media Made Us All Bad Friends?

Valerie Loftus wonders how to maintain real friendships in the age of Instagram.

Taylor Swift’s best friend Selena Gomez turned 26 in July, so Taylor baked her a birthday cake. A lovely gesture, except Taylor was on tour and unable to actually give it to Selena herself, so she just posted it on Instagram instead. To some, this was a bit of a strange move. Why would you make someone a cake they couldn’t eat, and post it on social media? “She’s such a good friend, see how caring she is? She makes a birthday cake for a friend that’s thousands of miles away,” said her fans. And there it is. It was a performance of friendship, one that makes Taylor look really good.

Celebrities, and Swift in particular, are pretty much masters at what can be called ‘performative friendship’. They know that being seen to be close pals with other celebrities will endear them to us and boost their profile. It doesn’t mean they’re not actually close, but there’s definitely a motive beneath themselves and the gushing interviews. However, us regular gals aren’t above it either, especially since the advent of social media. How often have you seen someone post a long birthday tribute on Facebook and think, “Could you not have just texted them?” How often have you watched a night out play out across several people’s Instagram Stories and wondered who it was supposed to be for? It was for us, of course, so we can see that they’re all the best friends that anyone could have.

Obviously, we all perform versions of ourselves online. More often than not, we only want to show our most popular, successful, attractive and admirable sides on social media. This isn’t brand new information. But it also enables us to ‘perform’ relationships – we can go through the motions of a friendship, keeping in touch on a low level, without having to put in much effort at all. And I can’t help but feel sad about that.

Linda, 26, noticed her once close relationship with a college friend was becoming increasingly hollow.

We were always commenting on each other’s statuses and liking each other’s photos,
but we hadn’t actually seen each other or had a proper deep chat for months. Mutual friends would ask me about her and I realised I didn’t know what she was up to beyond what she was posting online. It shocked me a little bit to see I’d gotten so lazy about it.

The lines between friendship and ‘friendship’ are becoming ever more blurred. A 2016 study asked 84 students to rate how well they knew each of their classmates from zero to five, where zero meant “I do not know this person”, three meant “friend” and five meant “best friends”. The students were asked to predict how their classmates would score them, and all assumed that those they had rated as friends would feel the same way about them. Here’s the clincher: Almost half of the friendships reported in the survey were one-sided. In a world where you can say you have 500 ‘friends’ and know what most of them had for breakfast, is it any wonder that no one really knows who their real mates are?

Life coach Paula Coogan thinks it’s time for us to stop letting friendships fall into the “black hole” of social media. “Get off social media and meet up face-to-face,” says Paula. “My best friend – I don’t know how she does it, but she’s not on social media at all. To find out what’s going on in her life I have to go for a coffee with her.”

Listen – I know it’s often not that easy. Lots of us are trying to maintain friendships with people on the other side of the world (thanks, emigration). Growing apart is normal, and it’s completely common these days to ‘keep up’ with people on social media long after the real life friendship has flickered out. You can also have purely ‘internet pals’ – I know I do. Sometimes, though, gushy birthday posts and promises of “drinks soon!” are a sticky plaster over a friendship that needs a bit more TLC. If you’re genuinely invested in the relationship, it’s time to get serious about those drinks. You might find a beautiful friendship just waiting to be reignited… or you might discover it’s dead in the water. Explains Paula:

You know when people are dating online and they spend months sending messages back and forth, then they meet up and they can’t have a conversation beyond five minutes? In ‘real life’, if you don’t have that real connection, if you’re not listening to each other or laughing, you’ll know. You’ll come away from it feeling distant, rather than closer.

If that’s the case, it’s perfectly okay to start fading things out – but happily, Linda found that she and her college pal still got on like a house on fire. “I asked her to meet up for a drink after work one evening to catch up. Turns out I didn’t know half of what was going on in her life, of course,” she says. “Honestly, I haven’t laughed as hard for a long time. It felt really good. And no, neither of us posted about it on Instagram.”

“Get off social media” might seem like the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard, but I needed to hear it, and maybe you do too. Post the collage of cute photos of you both, tell them you miss them, bake them a cake and put it on the internet – but ask them over for wine and pizza as well. We do a lot of things for the ‘gram, but maybe friendships are best kept firmly IRL.

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