It’s been a year and a day since I dropped my best friend off at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport so she could fly 9,383 miles around the world to shelter from COVID-19 at her family’s home. On the last stretch of the drive, pulling up to the departure entrance at McNamara Terminal, we laughed nervously. She’ll come back soon, right? I waved at her as she finished moving through security, then walked back to my car, feeling inexplicably empty thinking about her extended absence.
I haven’t seen her since. At least, not in person. I can count the number of days we haven’t FaceTimed since on one hand, and our texts are non-stop but somewhat lackluster; often, the most interesting subject of the day is a mild-to-moderately amusing tweet. If it’s with her, I’m happy. I know where we’ll stand when we see each other again — we’re already planning out her arrival back at DTW.
It’s not always the same story, though. The nature of friendships has changed drastically in the past year. Few close friends have stayed close, regaling each other with tales of the mundane, while casual friends and acquaintances have all but disappeared. The nature of friendship is largely rooted in communication, and since our communication has been translated into a different plane, the nature of recent friendships must also be different. A text every few weeks, checking up on the other person, and maybe a FaceTime call every few months — many of my friends and I have fallen out of constant contact, despite our futile efforts and love for each other. I don’t think of us as not friends anymore; rather, my definition of friendship has changed.
What is “being a friend?” The answer is different for every friendship. Often, it involves a sense of camaraderie, comfort and trust in one another. Or, it could be entirely situational — say, between you and a co-worker, or maybe your group project partner from your EECS 183 class whom you never spoke to again after the class finished. Most of the time, friendships involve a sort of platonic care or love for the other person. We communicate and accept love in different ways, and some love languages have been more affected by the pandemic than others. Friends who value words of affirmation as a love language might’ve ended up better off in the past year than friends who throw their arms around each other or spend time in the other’s physical presence.
Giving platonic love is different during the pandemic. It involves more texts and phone calls, as well as a mutual understanding that the other person is probably struggling. It involves less gift-giving and adventures outside and more texts like, “Hope you’re doing alright!” and sporadic unplanned FaceTime calls. There’s a lot more distanced communication. The level of contact I’ve had with many close friends during the pandemic rivals that which I’ve had with casual acquaintances before the pandemic.
That’s not to say that all friendships in the digital age, no matter the lack of in-person social contact, flourish. There are, of course, the many social connections that have fallen away, revealing that many relationships were simply contextual and quite harmful. I feel lonelier than ever when I think of the connections lost in the past year — but also very free. It feels better to not worry about putting on airs for those that I’m uncomfortable around. Additionally, as time’s arrow marches on, many have made new friends this year — or tried to, anyway. Normally, being a freshman can involve feeling lonely while surrounded by other people. Many students who entered the University of Michigan during 2020 were extremely lonely and surrounded by no one (save for the students who were breaking COVID-19 guidelines to party). Going off to college is a huge transition period, where people get acclimated to new environments — however, many of us are stuck in limbo. Come August, many sophomores will go through the so-called “freshman experience” for the first time due to the fact that they don’t know the University — whether in terms of the physical campus or their social circles.
Meeting new people in awkward online scenarios is less than ideal — need I go into Zoom fatigue? I’ve made a few friends with whom I converse regularly in direct messages, but I’ve never seen them before. Sometimes, I forget they have faces — their kindness permeates my screen, and their personalities are distinct in their texts, but I forget they don’t exist simply as metaphysical beings floating through the void. My soon-to-be roommates, most of whom I’ve only ever met over social media, could easily be figments of my imagination or well-programmed creations. Still, I have a good feeling.
I suppose, no matter how much I try not to let others affect me, I’ll remember this year in terms of the human connections — or lack thereof — I’ve made. I’ll remember not only the loneliness, but also the quietly beautiful texts, the random FaceTime calls and the funny emails from soon-to-be-not-strangers. I’m interested to see how friendship adapts as we move back to in-person activities after the governor’s lifting of the mask mandate for vaccinated people and the University’s move to in-person classes. And I’ll remember the embarrassing vision of me sitting in a friend’s living room a few weeks ago, passionately arguing about Twitter drama, while in hindsight the friend was very clearly not interested in anything but the conversation. Maybe all of us, myself included, can hopefully rely less on our Twitter banter going forward.
Anyways, perhaps writing this column this soon is folly. Still, for now, let this stand as a love letter to the online friendships, new and old, that have grown, withered or been planted over the past year. Hopefully, when our roots are ripped out and replanted, we survive. At this point, my standards are quite low, anyways.
Meera Kumar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.