A friend once told me, “Friendship is when people go through the same experience together, at the same time, in the same place”. I had nodded agreement then. Today, I would beg to differ, even if slightly. Over the last two decades, there have evolved so many different ways in which people communicate. First came email, then the mobile phone, then the sms text. Soon followed the online chat. A few years later came BBM and Facebook. Today there is Whatsapp, Viper, Twitter and so many other channels I don’t even know of! As if these are not enough, there are portals dedicated to people seeking similar things – marriage, dates, even sex. There are online platforms for people with similar interests – tennis, photography, books, travel, social work, even archeology! And through all of these mediums, that age-old definition of friendship is undergoing a sea change.
For a good part of the last decade, people derided these new mediums. They accused these of having degraded the experience of in-person interaction. They branded these as ways of making people stupid and addicted to the computer, keeping them indoors, keeping them away from real human beings. Even today, some young people go into bouts of self-doubt when they spend too much time on Facebook, or they tease friends for updates that are “too regular”. Just today, I saw a post that said – “I hope your life will one day be as awesome as you make it look on Facebook”. Why this constant suspicion and condescension and scrutiny? What if my life IS that awesome? Yours might not be, but maybe mine is! Maybe you think mine is not, but maybe I think differently. Is there a problem with what I think of my life, and what I want to tell the world about myself?
Over the last few years, I have met many people – a few hundred would not be an exaggeration. Partly it is my work that makes that possible, partly it is my nature, partly the people I befriend who, in turn, befriend a lot of other people. And through these many interactions, I have made several close friends. Some may still be acquaintances, and some are still strangers; but what is most interesting is that experiencing the same things has not been the fundamental foundation of these relationships. Rather, it has been how much and how well one shares them, and most importantly, the reactions that these sharings evoke in another. Also, as if to prove my theory right, these people are from age groups, fields of work, backgrounds, nationalities, even interests very different than mine. Then why do their jokes make me laugh, why do their essays make me want to comment, why do their posts make me want to say “I know what you mean”, why do their photographs make me want to tell them “I was there!” or “I absolutely love this”, and vice versa? These are people I have spent very limited physical time with, but as soon as something funny or interesting or even serious happens, why do we rush to our phones and text each other about it? That is because we know that we may not always be fully relatable to the people who are physically around us, or those with whom we have spent considerable periods of time.
In addition to all this, the nature of life itself has changed so much. We are always traveling, for work, for studies, with our partners. We are moving bases, shifting houses, even changing spouses a lot more frequently than our previous generations were doing. What remains constant in this permanent state of transition is our identity that translates into our communication in the virtual world. Today I may be spending 40 hours a week with you, but 5 years from now, we could just be friends on Facebook and yet know/feel/share the same way as we do now. Similarly, today we may just be Facebook friends, but a few years down the line, we could be living in the same city and meeting four evenings a week! Who knows? And why not?
The final counter-attack to this theory would be – “would you still turn to a virtual friend when your world is crashing? Or would you still fall back on a time-tested friend who can meet you almost immediately, hold your hand, give you their shoulder, listen to you for hours, stay up nights with you, make you coffee and breakfast, take you out for a movie?” The answer to this is that we are all very different people, and some of us may really need a physical companion to catch us when we are slipping, while some of us may find solace in texting and calling people who are far away but who would understand the situation best. Maybe the same person would do different things on different occasions. A friend of mine dealt with a bad break-up by venting to his friends on Facebook. Apparently people write on the Facebook wall of people who have passed away, clearly knowing that there is no way they will read it, but still somewhere deep down finding expression to their sorrow. I will always remember an sms I received from someone I knew through work and spent very little but good times with. Even though we were living in different countries at that time, she texted to tell me her mother had passed away, a few hours after it had happened. She had her family and friends around her, but the fact that she still thought of me in those extremely trying times made us close friends. We don’t talk everyday now, but we still know what we are doing, how we are feeling and where we think our lives are taking us.
So, we all find our own ways to share our experiences, to express our feelings, to deal with our dark moments and to smile in times of exhilaration. We all find our balances between spending time with technology and with people who are real and in front of us. And we all find ourselves through these many options that are available to us and the choices we make with them.