I’m lying in bed at night, deep scrolling on TikTok. It’s a funny thing, this unhealthy night-time routine — the never-ending flux of videos that leave you cackling then crying in five seconds flat is surely messing with your brain chemicals — but nonetheless, I scroll.
The trend of romanticising life in the pursuit of Main Character Energy is something I’m fondly intimate with. I know that what we see online is a carefully curated version of reality. I know that authenticity can be fabricated, and that vulnerability can be just as easily manufactured.
I know all that, but I still get caught up in the lies that social media sells us.
So when I’m scrolling alone in the early hours of the morning and see seemingly perfect groups of friends together, it pulls at the pit of my stomach. Look at them in their ultra-cool outfits at the train station before a night out, or on a weekend away in a cute Airbnb cottage. I enviously watch as they exchange secrets and little pecks on the cheek, their intimacy beaming off my cold phone.
I feel a pang of jealousy — or maybe even more shamefully, guilt.
Embarrassingly, I find myself watching some of these aesthetically collated videos a few times over, each viewing occasion focused on a different member of the friendship group. I’m not sure what I’m searching for: a fleeting look of disconnect or discomfort? A giveaway that things aren’t as perfect as they appear? It sounds a bit Machiavellian and I’m not sure that it isn’t.
I feel a pang of jealousy — or maybe even more shamefully, guilt. Pair that with the pain of not physically seeing my friends for weeks, or even months, and I realise that I’m a touch sensitive.
And now there are other TikToks breaking down this facade of perfect friendships. “Is their friendship better than mine or do they just take better pictures?” asks TikTok user Sara Lash. “Are they better friends or do they just wear cooler clothes? Will their friendship last longer or do they just have the opportunity to travel together more often? Do they love each more or do they just film more videos together?”
Jealousy has rooted itself in our culture as this selfish, ugly emotion. But it’s not a foreign feeling at all — it’s what makes us squirm in our romantic relationships and our career roles. It makes us look over our shoulders and over our fences (IRL or digitally) to see what others have, and whether or not we measure up.
But this comparison culture hasn’t historically translated to our friendships. You don’t really hear people wistfully sigh, “I want what they have,” directed at a duo of friends. Except…it’s always kind of been a thing for me.
I’ve had friendship envy since my heyday between the playground and MSN chatrooms (thank god I missed out on the MySpace era; the best friends list would’ve ruined me). I’ve always had moments when I've felt like a third wheel in friendship groups, where if I slowly disappeared from view, no one would notice.
It’s one thing to see friendship groups from across the school hallway or congregating in the office kitchen, and another to see it splashed out on social media. It used to just be birthday posts on someone’s Facebook page that started this strange, slightly manic obsession with online popularity. It’s now morphed into Instagram Story throwbacks and loving captions dedicated to the birthday person. It’s the tagging of friends in memes, the documentation of every outing, the TikToks made together. Hell, even LinkedIn isn’t immune.
These digital relics of friendship reaffirm every message we’ve been told about friendship, especially female friendship. You’re supposed to have a best friend for life, a ride-or-die, sister-like figure. Where's my Taylor Swift girl squad, my posse of long-legged friends, ready for duck-faced selfies? I want to be able to tell someone (unironically!), “you’re the Serena to my Blair”.
The strange thing is, I know I have strong friendships. I have a circle of people around me who care, support and love me (they’d even humour me for a duck-faced selfie!). But because we lack an electronic footprint, our friendships don’t feel as real.
Do we measure friendships by the length of phone calls? The number of years we’ve known each other? The number of secrets we keep? The bottles of wine we've drunk together?
Maybe it’s to do with a lack of structured friendship journeys. In romantic relationships, there’s a clear roadmap for the conventional. You meet, you date, you move in, you get engaged, you get married. For friendships, the road is unclear; there’s no ready-made plan waiting for you.
Life gets messy, and time wears thin for platonic relationships. Do we measure friendships by the length of phone calls? The number of years we’ve known each other? The number of secrets we keep? The bottles of wine we've drunk together?
Maybe that’s why we turn to tangible, measurable outputs like social media. If you can see it, that means it’s real, right? While there are innumerable holes in that argument, that’s what it can feel like, especially during lockdowns spent on screens.
Even though I’ve spent a silly amount of brainpower on this insecurity, I’m not upset about it. In fact, I’m choosing to embrace this gross, sticky feeling. If what I’m really worried about is not being able to foster true, strong, meaningful connections and relationships, that isn’t really a negative. It's simply part of the human condition.