Digital relationships

The other day I was changing the bed in my five year old son’s room. Paw Patrol is childish now, apparently. So the blanket and pillow covers featuring a team of rescue pups were replaced by ones depicting ninja lego men.

Working the bed sheet into place, I caught a glimpse of the boy out the window. He was with a friend. Outside, conditions were not great for doing, well, anything at all. The roads were icy and every playground and other open area covered by half a metre of hard snow. So they weren’t really doing anything, just hanging around. Loitering. My instinct was to call out to them and tell them they could come inside. 

“Let’s fire up the Switch, boys, and do a few laps with Mario’s karts!”

I caught myself just in time. What am I doing? I believe the strongest friendships are forged in boredom. Find someone you can share the fun times as well as the boring times with, and I’ll show you a friend. And here they were, hanging out and being bored together, and I was about to interrupt that. But I caught myself, just in time. 

(Five minutes later they were at the door, asking if they could come inside.)

Letting people be bored together is a fundamental function of the internet. Forget about paperless, ecommerce and business collaboration. The internet exists to connect bored people. I’m convinced of it. Memes prove it. The fact that they’ve become the universal language of the digital sphere is the outcome of too many bored souls gathered on a single network. And I’m here for it.

We’ve been forging digital relationships by being bored together online for several decades now. Back in the day there were Usenet groups and IRC rooms and bulletin boards and even email. (Yes, we emailed each other when we were bored. Try it.) Precious boredom was spent in the company of others after an initiation soundtrack composed of the noise robots make when they shake hands.

Apart from the obvious physical distance, these relationships mimicked the ones we formed in our local communities. The rules of engagement were much the same, and always with a peculiar twist of some kind unique to any particular community. Just like on the playground, in the office and at the stadium. But at some point during the last 20 years, this started changing.

Our digital hangouts metastasized.

The rules of engagement changed. Where our digital playgrounds once were about hanging out and shooting the shit with friends, they now became something else. People started optimising. Optimising what? Everything. What they said, how they said it and when they said it. All in an effort to gain more friends. We still called them friends at that point. But the veil quickly fell away and the term followers eventually took the place of friends. And rightly so, because you can’t optimise for friendship. 

Trying to optimise for friendship is like trying to divide by zero. Imagine that your friends in the physical world started acting the same as people began doing online:

“Yeah I’m gathering all my friends in the town square every morning at 8AM to share a quick joke. My tests have shown that this is the optimal way to increase average engagement. Talk afterwards? Nah I don’t have time for that. But feel free to chat amongst yourselves as I leave. This is a community after all, if you didn’t know.”

It’s unthinkable. Because friendship is made in the in-betweens, the shared unfilled spaces. The unoptimised and the genuine. 

Yet that’s what many of our digital relationship became. And for the slow and the unobservant among us, the change was subtle. So subtle that we didn’t give it much attention, but instead found ourselves wondering why we were feeling disconnected. No wonder, that loneliness is the result of our digital relationships being commoditized and turned into an industry. 

But I’m here to tell you that there is a better way. There is a movement going on. A movement to bring back the genuine and the human that we lost when the walled gardens of the modern corporate web took hold. It consists of forums and chats and blogs and much, much more besides. But, far more important than the form it takes, is that it is founded on a belief in true human connection. Instead of being built on principles of optimisation and monetisation, it’s built on expression and mutual interaction. You know, the stuff requisite for converting from following to friending.

It’s good. 

I hope you’ll join us. 

This post is an entry to the February 2024 IndieWeb carnival. It is hosted by Manu, and I cannot encourage you strongly enough to click this link and start reading the 26 other entries that have been shared at the time of writing.

Each post tackles the subject of digital relationships. It is fascinating to see so many different and interesting takes on the topic.


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