Trigger warning: This article mentions the death of a sibling.
When my younger sister suddenly passed away last October, I was overwhelmed by the support of my friends, both new and old. Messages of love and condolence cushioned my grief and enabled me to feel anything but alone. As a teenager who came into being in the midst of Instagram’s emergence, I share each significant life event on my page. Winning rowing races, getting our dogs, prom, running 10k for charity, getting into university, moving to Turkey, graduation, my partner and I’s anniversary – all of it has gone online.
Posting photos of happy memories that I treasured when my sister passed felt like an admission to my friends that I would need their support to get through this pain. Periodically I’d update my close friends Instagram story with another treasured photo or a memory that crossed my mind, using each post to let myself feel what I needed to feel – longing, love, sadness, regret. But in the months that followed, as the news became less fresh and the timeline moved on, as it does, I felt at a loss and more alone than ever.
Social media has defined the majority of my friendships as I've grown into adulthood. Who I stay close to, who I meet up with, who becomes a stranger, who constitutes a 'good' friend. But as my grief has progressed, I have realised that social media makes us feel constantly 'connected' to our friends. We know their whereabouts and what they’re up to, making us feel close to our peers, even when they’re at a distance.
Online, we often assume that access equates to limitless opportunity to 'reach out', making us even more reluctant to contact a friend when we genuinely miss their company or need their advice, disillusioned by the common narrative that if they wanted to get in touch, well, they would.
This illusion works both ways. I realised during my grieving that, often, carrying on as normal was my way of coping. This meant that my social media feed was far from an accurate representation of what I was experiencing and feeling inside. As a result, many of my friends were able to assume I was coping well. Instead of getting in touch with my friends and loved ones to communicate what I needed from them in real life, I lived my grief through my social media presence; it was defined by empty exchanges rather than two-way conversations.
Online, being present is everything, and the algorithms that alert us with notifications that keep us coming back for more make it near impossible for us not to be chronically online. This results in unrealistic expectations and a warped sense of what constitutes a good friend and a close relationship. Twitter hot takes about holding friends to account circulate constantly, stressing that those who don’t show up online should be shown the door. Not heard from them in two weeks? Cut them off. Doubting if they’re thinking of you? You’re probably right. Watching your stories but not sharing and pledging undying support? They’re giving you the evil eye! These mantras that populate our discourse around friendships and accountability make us mistake likes and comments for real and meaningful interactions with friends.
It’s scarily easy to slip into this framework of analysing and ranking our friendships based on their online activity. This cost-benefit analysis of deeply personal relationships is not only inaccurate but inhumane. By viewing how much time they dedicate to us in the online sphere – how many texts, calls, exchanges we’ve had – as an indicator of how much they care, we make the mistake of assuming our friends' intentions and reduce our friendships to digital metrics.
Neema Githere, an artist and theorist known as @take.back.theinternet, says that social media is degrading our friendships through the way it makes us frame our loved ones in capitalist, numbers-driven value metrics. "Instagram in particular has placed our anxieties and compulsions around being perceived into the forefront of its business model, feeding our most judgemental impulses in the process."
For her, unlearning this conditioning is an intentional and holistic practice that can empower us and better our relationships. "A big part of my practice around data healing is to try and rewire these distortions by looking towards indigenous blueprints of technology, such as nature, for insight on how to embody more gentle relationships."
Grieving online offered me the illusion of closeness and community without ever really delivering on that promise. Although my friends would engage with my updates, commenting and liking my posts, no online interaction felt genuinely fulfilling. Safiya U. Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, believes that we are being sold a pop-up experience. As we immerse ourselves further in the digital realm – the metaverse being a prime example – our real lives are falling further from our grasp and we’re missing out on genuine connection as a result.
At the same time, while ensuring we are showing up and being present online, we can end up failing to be present for these same friendships in the offline world, which we often don’t view as critically. Before social media, we had to make time for our friendships in person. There was no alternative. I haven’t seen some of my closest friends since before my sister passed, five months ago. How could I expect them to know what I needed during my grief when I never communicated it to them?
For Yasmin Elizabeth, creator of Instagram account Pick Me Up Inc, implementing social media breaks every month has taught her that online behaviours and expectations aren’t real, and we shouldn’t internalise them. "We all have the most friends right now yet are the most lonely. [Social media] has taken away the value of authentic interaction because people are so accessible that we take it for granted."
This makes sense. Having constant access to something undoubtedly makes us appreciate it less, and the same goes for friendships. Since the pandemic and the shift to predominantly digital modes of communication, I’ve come to realise I never really rekindled my friendships in the way they existed before, when I was at university and could see my friends more often without having to schedule it in.
Online, we often assume that access equates to limitless opportunity to 'reach out', making us even more reluctant to contact a friend when we genuinely miss their company or need their advice, disillusioned by the common narrative that if they wanted to get in touch, well, they would. As someone who works from home and lives in a different part of the country from all my friends, I’ve realised that my friendships can easily evolve into exchanges that exist solely online if we don’t make the effort to see each other.
It’s easy to let these online exchanges slip too, because keeping them takes work in a digital world that is constantly fighting for our attention, where even the simplest task of sending a text becomes a series of failed attempts punctured by getting lost on TikTok or doomscrolling on Twitter. Because of this, many of us don’t even like being online. We recognise that our friendships bring more value in their organic and unaltered form, in person. For those of us who don’t want the online upkeep, who don’t enjoy interacting on the 'gram or find FaceTime catch-ups unfulfilling, social media can put our friendships at risk. Just this week, a close friend told me that she felt like "we were going through a breakup" so we spontaneously booked a holiday to make up for lost time.
Following the loss of my sister, I was torn by conflicting perceptions of my friendships, longing for my friends to reach out but knowing that a text conversation wouldn’t nudge the uncomfortable feeling from my gut that something wasn’t quite right. In all my frustrations, when I caught myself questioning my friends and asking whether they truly cared, I realised that the emptiness I felt was no fault of theirs but something that social media had made me feel. Grieving in the digital age has taught me that we cannot rely on digital exchanges to fulfil our complex social needs and emotional desires.
Social media ought to be a supplement to our friendships, not the sole medium through which we live them. Online interactions and connections can never replace in-person quality time. Instead of blame, committing more face-to-face time to our friendships might offer us true fulfilment. Twitter might tell us to cut that friend off when all we really need from them is a hug, not a FaceTime date.