As an anxious internet nerd, my relationships are thriving during lockdown

Since lockdown began, I’ve moved three times, lost jobs and been separated from my family – but my online community hasn’t changed

‘I’m an indoor kid, and I’ve spent most of my life separated from at least some people I love, so the internet has always been where I’ve found community in an uncertain world.’
‘I’m an indoor kid, and I’ve spent most of my life separated from at least some people I love, so the internet has always been where I’ve found community in an uncertain world.’ Photograph: Farknot Architect/Alamy Stock Photo
‘I’m an indoor kid, and I’ve spent most of my life separated from at least some people I love, so the internet has always been where I’ve found community in an uncertain world.’ Photograph: Farknot Architect/Alamy Stock Photo
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Toyota Venza
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Last modified on Fri 11 Sep 2020 16.42 EDT

I have tea with my best friend once a week. By “with” I mean that we talk online, given that she’s hundreds of miles away and strict about physically distancing. And by “best friend” I mean someone I have seen in person a total of six times.

Every Tuesday, we fire up the Zoom to rant about everything from the politics of herd immunity to the new Taylor Swift album. I get to find out how things are going with her cats, her partners and the social network she is building from her bedroom. We are anxious, cerebral internet nerds, and our friendship has never depended on physical proximity, because in every way that matters, we’re there for each other.

I’m currently stuck in Los Angeles, and over the past six months going outside has meant encountering a horrifying plague, wildfires, civil unrest and armed thugs in the police department. I leave the house about once a week. With the planet boiling, it’s wonderful weather to stay inside and be an enormous dork. And yet, I have been seeing more, not less, of my favourite people.

I’m an indoor kid, and I’ve spent most of my life separated from at least some people I love, so the internet has always been where I’ve found community in an uncertain world. That’s why I’m still active on social media, despite the theatrical amount of harassment I receive for being a woman who flaunts her opinions online. We meet on janky, imperfect platforms where conspiracy theories metastasize and our every intimacy is tracked, and it’s still worth it. It’s worth it even though every time I open Facebook it reminds me that it knows exactly what kind of underwear I like.

Something feels different about social media in pandemic time, at least on my feeds. The relentless, competitive performance of self, all glossy filters and hidden fangs, has been replaced by a desperate silliness, a conscious acknowledgement that it really is OK not to be OK.

With everything that’s happening, there is suddenly something crass about conspicuous displays of coping. All over the world, everyone is stumbling through their own specific version of the same crisis, and precisely when it would help to be able to touch each other, we can’t. So we have had to improvise, finding new ways of showing up for each other.

In my world that’s meant an awful lot of wrangling with petulant wifi to watching the faces of friends and strangers glitch and pixelate in the middle of quiz nights, reading groups, tabletop roleplaying sessions. As the days and weeks of quarantine smeared into an anxiety attack of unstructured time, I also started an informal writing group. Five months ago, were mostly strangers; in the boiling plague-ridden late summer, we still meet several times a week to check in, work on our novels and hold our household pets up to the camera for inspection. I’ve become oddly fond of the daily existential refrain – I’m breaking up, can you hear me?

Across oceans, across time zones, people are finding new ways to become tangible to each other. Since lockdown began, I’ve had to move three times, lost jobs, lost income, been separated from my family, watched everything I thought was solid melt into airtime. But the network I have online hasn’t moved, because it’s not based in time or geography. Sometimes all you can do is witness and hold space as people get sick, get married, have babies, have breakdowns. I’ve spent late nights fielding crisis calls, scheming to have friends in far-flung cities deliver treats and tiny missives. It took lot of coordinating to get coffee and cake sent to a sweetheart ten thousand miles away at the exact moment he’d need them, but it was worth it.

Perhaps, just as it’s easier to hurt each other at a distance, it’s also easier to love each other from a little further away – actively, creatively, with a sincerity that so many of us avoid in person for fear of looking foolish. Sometimes, a little distance makes it easier for people to say what they really mean. Easier to tell someone that they matter, that you are delighted by their presence in your life, that you celebrate their strangeness and their tiny triumphs, that you will personally hunt down anyone who causes them pain. You can’t hold them while they cry, but you can let them know that it’s alright, that life is precious and scary and ridiculous and you might be far away, and they might be breaking up, but you can hear them.

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