Loving our Internet Friends like our IRL Friends

Remembering the golden age of Livejournal, and the life-saving power of online community

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I wanted to write a nostalgic piece about how the Internet used to be idyllic — a place of learning and connection and light-hearted fun. It’s hard to remember these days, when social media is overrun by neo-Nazis and bots, and fake news drowns out any meaningful content. But in light of the recent deaths by suicide of two widely beloved celebrities, I’m thinking instead about how the Internet was once (and still can be) a safe space, and a life-saving connection between those who hurt and those who help heal them.

Like most introverted teens in the early aughts, I started blogging on Livejournal. Looking back at my earliest entries in 2004 is cringe-inducing — I had decided I wanted to go by a nickname completely unrelated to my actual name (and which nobody ever actually called me, much to my disappointment), and I frequently signed off with “au demain” (I was taking French in school and thought that was trés chic). At the beginning, my LJ posts really were just glorified diary entries, and only my most loyal friends bothered to read them.

In high school, I started to get into writing poetry and fan fiction (separately… poetry fic was not my jam), and began to explore those communities on LJ. It was an exciting time to be on social media. I could get feedback on my poetry from people outside my immediate friend circle, or read fic from someone in another country. There was an older poet that I saw as a sort-of mentor, and her constructive criticism meant so much to me. It was so exciting to be meeting all these people I never would have had the chance to connect with in real life.

Around the same time I also made my first serious “Internet friend” on LJ. We shared a love of reading (Jane Austen was a mutual favorite author), and we exchanged care packages of goodies from our home states. In some ways it was easier to talk to her about what was going on in my life than it was to talk to an “IRL” friend. I was amazed that it was possible to have such a supportive friend in someone I had never actually hung out with, besides on my computer screen.

But in thinking back on those golden days of Livejournal, I also remember being awakened to the widespread reality of mental health issues. Just as I found it easier to spill my feelings to strangers on the Internet, a lot of LJ users spoke candidly about their struggles with depression and even suicide ideation. This was well before the widespread use of trigger warnings, and looking back I shudder to think about how careless some of those posts were. Sure, it’s great to have a close friend you can talk to in your darkest moments. But a lot of LJ users kept their posts completely public (I preferred to limit mine to my “friends list”), and you never knew who could be reading a post in that case, or what their state of mind was like.

I vividly recall having conversations in an LJ poetry group with a Scottish boy not too much older than myself (or at least, that’s who he claimed to be — you never really knew if the person you were talking to was who they said they were). He was in a bad place with his mental health. Some of the other poets in the group and I would try to talk him down, but one day he just stopped posting. His profile hadn’t been deleted, but there was radio silence on his end. I still wonder sometimes what happened to that guy, and if he got the help he needed. That’s the tough thing about getting to know someone on the Internet — sometimes there is no closure, and you’ll always be left wondering what became of them. Of course, in today’s Internet climate of virulent harassment, that person might have been trolled and pushed over the edge even sooner.

But for me at least, having an outlet to talk about my depression was more helpful than harmful. A lot of the poems I was sharing in those poetry groups and on my personal journal were about my mental health and even, sometimes, about suicide ideation. Even more than the constructive criticism of my craft, I appreciated feeling seen, and hearing from other writers that they understood the feelings I had expressed because they’d gone through them, too. They helped me feel like depression was something I could survive, not something that made me irreparably broken. There was a therapeutic quality to those Internet workshop sessions. The relative anonymity of Livejournal made possible that spirit of community and safety, in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened as easily or as quickly in a physical setting.

The recent deaths by suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have sparked a conversation about mental health across social media. There’s been a lot of well-meaning advice, and some more judgmental than constructive. A common thread I’ve noticed is the idea that people who are depressed and contemplating suicide aren’t always able to reach out for help themselves. That’s one of the most frustrating things about depression — it makes you want to isolate yourself when you most need care and attention. So we have to make it a point to look out for our friends and family, and check in on them maybe before they even know they need to be checked on. We can never truly know a person, or what’s going on in their head — but we can try to consistently be there for them, just in case.

It got me thinking about how important it is to have the kind of close friends that you can not only go to in a time of need, but who proactively check in on you, and anticipate when your mental health is going south. I’m lucky to have several friends like that, and one of them I actually met through the Internet. It still baffles me sometimes that someone I’ve only ever talked to through the screen of my laptop or the speaker of my cellphone could have become that close to me, but I think that Internet friendships are often what we make of them. They offer a unique opportunity to be vulnerable with someone in a way that can be hard with someone you see day-to-day in real life (though the idea that there is a “real life” separate from our life on the Internet is increasingly absurd — we are spending more time than ever on the Internet, making these online friendships more valuable). Either way, I’m grateful to have made such a strong friendship through Twitter, an app which can both drive me to despair and delight me in the same day.

It’s easy to forget that our Internet communities are impacted by our actions. I’m not arguing that you have to be nice to everyone — if someone is trolling you, you don’t owe them any respect. And it’s not even about being “nice,” honestly. The bigger concern is that we never know who’s going to read our tweets and Instagram posts. It’s a cliché, but we truly don’t know what other people are going through. It would be better to operate under that assumption, and recognize that what you consider a harmless thought could be triggering to someone else. And this doesn’t just apply to strangers — we have a responsibility to be thoughtful about how we interact with even our closest online friends. Reach out to them more often — you never know when someone needs a friendly ear to listen until you ask.

The Internet can be terrible sometimes, but there are still ways to make meaningful connections with like-minded people. Being on social media can feel like shouting into the void, but there are real people on the other end (okay — Russian bots excluded). If something positive can come out of those tragic celebrity deaths, it’s that they have reminded us to look out for each other.