Socially savvy, not socially awkward: Female friendships in the ‘mobile’ age

She seems distracted, attached to her phone instead of the world. An endless stream of messages lighting up the screen. Emotions flicker across her face; a grimace stretching across her mouth, an exploding snort of laughter and then an embarrassed glance up at the silent commuters surrounding her on the train. Few notice; perhaps too absorbed in their own worlds, headphones on and fingers responding to messages of their own.

This is perhaps a familiar picture, usually hued with nostalgic remembrances of days when people would talk on the trains, exchange a laugh and a smile in the present, instead of a ‘LOL’ and emoji into the seeming void of the Internet. However, this conventional portrait of a disengaged youth needs altering; in response to a radically different world young people are travelling more and keeping in touch with wider friendship circles. Friendships are conducted across networks; real advice conveyed in the words of a text message, support through hours of video calls, laughter caught in a Snapchat and the ability to check in with a Facebook ‘like’ or two.

“Two of my closest friends live far away geographically, but I think I maintain strong relationships with both of them,” says Johanna, 21.

German-born, living in Switzerland and studying in the United Kingdom, Johanna has friends scattered across the globe, from Australia to Canada. However, she thinks it is entirely possible to retain meaningful relationships across the distance and the time difference, due to her ability to keep up with their everyday lives using apps like WhatsApp and Facetime.

“The key to maintaining these close friendships is consistency in communication,” she says. “I think small things like checking up on them throughout the day, or updating them on mine is definitely a part of that.”

Reduced international call and messaging rates, as well as the development of apps like Snapchat, allow instant communication between friends so that thdy can share in life’s moments, however big or small. Previously the delay of letters meant friends would be out of step with each other, or expensive overseas calls meant one eye had to watch the clock. Social media on the otherhand is cheap, easy and always available.

So while infographics such as these use statistics of high social media usage to claim that it is is making the younger generation ‘socially awkward’, seen in another light, it allows a connection to a broader network and the ability to maintain long distance relationships. Interestingly, that same infographic quotes a 2012 survery where 84% of respondents said they used social media to stay in touch with faraway friends.

A quick Google search reveals the prominence of long-distance friendships in the minds of young women, with blogs such as Hello Giggles and xoJane, as well as magazines like Cosmopolitan, regularly running articles with headlines such as ’17 Things Only People with Long-distance BFFs Understand’ and ‘Why My Long-distance Friendlationship Was the Best Thing that Happened To Me’. And of course, Buzzfeed listicles abound. Clearly, the long-distance friendship is a central joy and concern for young women,

Due to the changes in the technological landscape and the increased ease of travel, scholars have had to reconsider their understanding of long-distance friendships. An example of this is a 2011 essay by Amy Janan Johnson and Jennifer A.H. Becker which seeks to reconceptualise friendship in the ‘modern age’. They claim multiple communication channels and mobility have “dramatically increased the possibilities and expectations for sustaining close connections despite geographic distance.”

Traditionally, friendships had been viewed ‘fragile’ and severed easily by distance due to the importance of face-to-face communication. Now, researchers are recasting long-distant relationships as ‘flexible’ — more durable and resistant to the shifts and changes in life. The notion of a ‘close friendship’ requires redefinition when it is no longer simply a matter of geographical proximity and frequent physical contact.

At the vanguard of these changes in friendship networks are the youth, and particularly young women, who place a high value on being able to communicate with their trusted confidants whenever they choose.

“The best thing about a long-distance friendship is essentially the friendship itself: being able to share things with and talking to a person that means a lot to you and understands you,” explains Johanna.

With youth (aged 18–25) accounting for 20% of the global travel industry, and many governments, including Australia’s, encouraging mobility during the university years via Exchange programs, many university-age women are forging friendships internationally that are then maintained digitally.

Jessica Gordon, Senior Study Abroad Advisor at the University of Western Australia (UWA), has noted an increase in the number of students seeking and undertaking overseas studies in recent years.

“Almost all students who go on exchange comment on the friendships they made, how easy it was to make the friendships, and how strong they are,” she says.

“Many students say they keep in touch with the friends they made, and when they travel they have places to stay all over the world. Making new friends and relationships is definitely one of the best things that come out of an exchange.”

One UWA student, Kelsey, 24, still keeps in touch with international friends from her 2013 exchange in Amsterdam and those she met when they were on exchange in Perth.

“When I left my international friends to come back to Australia, I spoke to a few of them basically every day through Facebook chat primarily, but also through WhatsApp and on special occasions Skype,” says Kelsey.

The ability to talk on such a regular basis softened the transition of leaving behind these close friendship networks, and although they talk less now, Kelsey notes that social media still helps her stay in touch and feel part of the lives of her faraway friends.

“Now that it’s been two years since I’ve moved back to Australia I don’t speak to them anywhere near as often, but I think we all understand that life gets in the way. Instagram ‘likes’, Snapchat, Facebook posts and comments are generally the way my international friends and I keep in contact now.”

Bec, 23, has maintained a friendship with Flora, who lives in France, for fourteen years. They first met when Flora was in Australia on exchange and keep in contact every couple of months. As a frequent traveller herself, Bec admits her international friends are an important factor in her plans.

“I have always organised my travel around them,” she says. “It is the best part of it — getting to see my long-distance friends.”

Bec has visited Flora in France three times now, as well as her high-school friend Angela who now lives in New York, where she studies at AMDA. Angela flew to Australia to be a bridesmaid at Bec’s wedding, and although geographically distant, was involved in the planning and anticipation of the big day, through the wonders of Facebook and FaceTime.

Despite the 18,690km distance between them, Bec defines her as one of her closest friends.

“We are the type that so easily can pick up where we left off and it seems like no time has passed. We were such close friends as kids that we really don’t need to talk all the time to maintain the friendship.”

Although the geographical distance certainly poses challenges to these strong female friendships, Johanna finds there are positive aspects as well, one being that due to the time differences “someone is always there to talk.”

“The worst parts are the inability to actually physically experience their presence and not being able to share experiences and spend time together the way you do with friends nearer to you.”

However, these long-distance friendships sit alongside the friendships of those geographically nearer, instead of replacing them. Kelsey says she tries not to sacrifice time with her local friends to keep up with her long-distance friends.

I think it’s really important to continue living life and doing things, because that’s exactly what my long-distance friends are doing without me,” she laughs. “That sounds a bit bitter.”

“Maybe sometimes I can be distracted texting or Facebooking with my long-distance friends,” she concedes. “But generally when I’m with my near friends I enjoy the time I’m spending with them. Plus, then I have more adventures to relay to my far-away pals!”

For Kelsey, Bec and Johanna their long-distance friendships sit happily alongside their local friends, offering support, guidance and connection. They can look forward to future travels and reunions. And in between times, on the train home at the end of a long day, they can check in with a close friend — who though far away — can offer the understanding or laugh they need. Friendship might look different — a few words on a screen, a giant love-heart emoji — but it can still mean the world to those inside them.