Tech

I Will Unfollow

The internet is responsible for some of my best friendships—and the most toxic ones.

Illustration by Cynthia

Illustration by Cynthia

A lot of my best friendships started online. Some of them stayed online, some of them died there, and many became IRL bonds. After 15 years of using the internet on a daily basis, I’ve floated through most of the ways you can find your virtual tribe: AOL chat rooms, forums for my favorite bands, MySpace, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Tumblr. I met one of my best friends on a message board for fans of Mike Doughty in 1999. Her posts there stood out from the usual fangirling—they were thick with sarcasm and cut with a dark streak of humor, she talked about interests outside of Soul Coughing, like knitting, which we had both just discovered. We both lived in New York City, so we decided to meet at a Doughty concert, and we’ve been besties ever since (two years ago, I officiated her wedding). I started out as a fan of my friend Sarah’s blog back in 2001, attended her reading series a few years later, and have since become so close with her that we vacation together and have already planned our leisurely activities for when we’re old ladies together (mostly building miniatures). My husband and I met on a Delphi comic book forum for Matt Fraction in 1999. I was brought to that forum by Kelly Sue, a woman I’d met on the Mike Doughty message board; she said it was cool place to talk to other nerds. Seth and I were friends for six years online before we met in person in the summer of 2005, when I was in New York visiting family. We went to a Marcel Dzama show, picked up some finger puppets from a vendor on 14th Street, and spent the entire day rolling around the city laughing so much that I knew right away that I would never meet anyone else I wanted to be with every single day. We spent another few months apart (I lived in Alaska at the time), emailing daily and nerding out on the Matt Fraction board, so by the time we finally got together I already knew and loved him. The internet has brought all of the greatest people in my life right to my door.

It has also contributed to some of the most toxic relationships I’ve ever had, and revealed the ugliest sides of my personality. Because as easy as it was to bond with people online over things like shared interests and the ability to quote Kids in the Hall skits at a moment’s notice, it was equally easy to find people eager to share less positive stuff: complaints, bitching, and gossip. For a while I rolled with a pretty negative crew. We met on the same forums, websites, and blogs where I met my lifelong pals and partner, but these conversations somehow always focused on complaining about someone or something. Most of these venues (rightly) frowned upon openly calling someone out or trolling them, so in the light of day we were on our best behavior. But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t immediately take to email or other backchannels to vent about our REAL feelings.

It started, as I recall, when a few bloggers started intentionally making money from their websites instead of focusing on putting out the same content we were used to. These people we liked had CHANGED in the WORST WAY—selling out!—and we found both this shift and these bloggers’ consequent success intolerable. Once that door was open, we quickly devolved into taking personal shots at bloggers who were more successful than us. We all had our own blogs, and we were just as creative, if not more so, we reasoned, than these people—why did THEY make money while we still had to work our stupid office jobs? We didn’t take into account that those bloggers worked harder than we did, and were smarter about business—our reaction was jealousy, pure and simple, dressed up to look like principled objection.

If this all sounds super middle-school to you, it felt that way to me too, even while it was happening. It reminded me of the often abusive friendships kids sometimes form as a way to survive that incredibly awkward social time. A popular girl in my grade used to pick on people and make other girls do strangely horrible things to prove that they were worthy of hanging out with her—like stealing milk from people’s trays at lunch or trying to make someone cry by insulting their outfit. She would stand back like Maleficent, the spiteful witch in Sleeping Beauty, while other people scurried around trying to impress her, simply because she had been deemed cool by some arbitrary set of social standards (designer clothes + a house with a pool). Since I never made it to her inner circle, I always wondered what it was like being her friend. Once you’d done some horrible thing to prove yourself worthy of her friendship, THEN what? Was she really nice? Or did the torture just keep going, like some prolonged middle school hazing? Did you ever get to put the brakes on being awful?

Sixteen years later, I learned that being in the inner circle of a group of mean girls usually means you have to prove your solidarity every day, and that means you have to keep being mean. There were five or six of us at any given time in this loose group of bloggers. We were all in our mid-to-late-20s, and at the same point in a similar imagined life trajectory, working unfulfilling office jobs for not much money, caught up in bad relationships, uncertain about our futures. I wanted to write for a living and to feel like my life was moving forward, but I felt stuck in a shitty job, living paycheck to paycheck with roommates I didn’t get along with in a state (Alaska) that was physically and socially isolating. There was such an unfathomably long distance between where we were and where we all wanted to be that it seemed like we’d never get there, and no one was giving us directions. There was no map. And so it felt better and more immediate to rag on someone who had some element of the life I wanted, than to contemplate taking the daunting first steps toward getting that thing for myself. It felt (temporarily) good to complain about the unfairness of our struggle—calling it unfair made us feel like righteous victims, like criminally ignored geniuses, and there is nobility in that. Whereas admitting the truth to ourselves—“This is pretty much what most people experience in their 20s”—would cast us as normal, unspecial people who might never realize our goals, and no one else would care one way or the other.

If you want it to be, the internet is a safe space for you to be a complete jerk. When one of the parenting bloggers we ragged on made it into the pages of a major magazine, we sneered at her canned answers (“This is the same thing she always says!”) and even stooped so low as to mock her clothes. Whenever anyone got a book deal from their blog, we made ourselves feel better by guessing how poorly it would sell, or saying that it would just be a rehash of stuff you could already get for free (irony: my life is FULL OF IT). We found out a certain blogger had registered her blog name as an LLC and a brand, and for days we talked about our plans to brand our sandwiches, our coats, our pets. We were incredibly, overwhelmingly, obviously jealous. I never left mean comments on these websites nor otherwise made my hatred known to its objects, but I did a lot of hate-reading of blogs and furious emailing to this group about every nitpicky detail I could find to criticize, like misspelled words or lazy reposts of old material. If I couldn’t be successful, I could at least hate everyone who was. It made me feel better to think that no matter how much the writers I scorned were adored by the public, there would always be at least ONE person out there who wasn’t buying it. I would have been ASHAMED to say any of this stuff IRL. But the internet gave my resentment and meanness a place to come out and play. Without the internet, I doubt I would have ever even discovered how truly awful I am capable of being.

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16 Comments

  • Sophie ❤ July 10th, 2013 3:45 PM

    This is just so relatable. I loved some of the lines and the illustration, too!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • alienbabe July 10th, 2013 3:47 PM

    I’m in love with this article, I totally get you.

    http://sweetandsourstyle.blogspot.com/

  • Hazel July 10th, 2013 3:59 PM

    Lovvvvvved this!

  • jfate July 10th, 2013 4:04 PM

    Those negatives you mentioned are some of the reasons I’m so hesitant to get too deep into this internet thing, but I guess every good thing has it’s negatives and it’s all about being able to keep a positive attitude and not let things get to your head.

    http://jfates-and-fables.blogspot.com

  • insteadofanelephant July 10th, 2013 5:32 PM

    i always try my best to stay away from people who put me down for succeeding, although it’s extremely hard when those people are your friends. glad you got away. sometimes i feel bad for not contacting someone and asking to catch up, but then i remember HEY WAIT…they haven’t asked me to grab lunch or catch up either. some people are worth making the first move, most people aren’t.

    go for that ph.d! solid work.

    instead of an elephant

  • gregmce July 10th, 2013 9:28 PM

    Ain’t it the truth, though? Sometimes, much to our regret (myself included), it turns out that we have to start growing up multiple times. But getting past that is the best when you realize that you’ve finally let go, because life is suddenly so much better.

  • Isil July 11th, 2013 11:15 AM

    I’m 19 years old, and I’ve met my recent best friend through the internet. I was really into Harry Potter like most normal kids were, but my school was full of people who were shallow (to me). I wouldn’t want to say that but all they care was popularity and they constantly bullied people. I was friends with them, so they didn’t do anything bad to me, but we’ve had nothing in common. I was always reading books or listening to music in school breaks. I was so alone. And I needed to talk about my Harry Potter fandom with somebody! So I found a message board about Harry Potter which was really popular in my country, I’ve had friends, I was 11 when I first signed up there. It was closed when I was 14 or 15 but I keep up with my friends through facebook etc. then we finally met and go to the 7th movie of Harry Potter. I was 17. They were two people, and now we are in the same college, and one of them is my best friend. People finds it weird when we tell them that we met through the internet.

    http://isilnoir.wordpress.com

  • femmedlx July 11th, 2013 11:51 AM

    I’m also suffering from depression/the whole antidepressant bit/ unemployed & recently graduated. I was definitely sucked into the viciousness that the internet can spew for the same reasons above…too much time on my hands and my friends (whom I love dearly) are all out succeeding in their endeavors. It sucks and it hurts but I’m holding on to the idea that things will not stay this way and once I become busy, these sad/self-deprecating feelings will go away. Thanks for being a living testament to that.

  • Hayley G. July 11th, 2013 3:01 PM

    Loved this! Very relevant to my life. I ended up depressed and anxious due to internet “friendships,” and I basically had to force myself into therapy. It’s hard to break from those relationships online, but I think the greatest bit I got from therapy was that these people would come and go. I had to focus on setting my own goals and accomplishing them, which I hadn’t really done cause I lived by what everyone else wanted. I’m slowly getting back on track though, and it’s a great feeling knowing I’m not the only one going through all of this.

    Stay awesome at life!

  • Hally July 11th, 2013 4:57 PM

    I loved this article, Danielle! It seems that writers find it especially easy to fall into the jealousy trap. Maybe because the good opportunities are so few and the competition so fierce that we all feel like one person’s step up is a direct hit to our own success. The funny thing is that reaching out to those who are successful and supporting them can help us make connections that may benefit us in the future. There is really no upside to being snarky, but I think that lesson often comes only with experience. Great writing here, as always <3

  • AngstyTheBrave July 11th, 2013 6:49 PM

    Great article! I have made some great friends on Tumblr, and they’re all really nice, positive people. I have met some negative people, had some unhealthy relationships, etc. but there’s so much of that in my offline life that I sort of gravitate towards the happier part of the internet (at least nowadays).

    I did meet my first girlfriend online, and it turned into a different kind of bad relationship. No abuse, no toxic feelings, no getting bored, no “I can’t date you, you’re too far away!” It just ended badly because we both have depression. She didn’t want to drag me down, I didn’t want to drag her down. Eh. We’re still friends, but not in contact that much. Sort of off-topic but I guess I just wanted to vent to the awesome Rookie readers.

    http://www.tripleal.tumblr.com/

  • rosebud_ July 11th, 2013 9:12 PM

    Internet relationships can be a tricky thing… I met my boyfriend online and at first it was really confusing trying to figure out what we really were. Were our feelings real or was it just because we were both bored and lonely? Was it the comfort of just knowing each other was there? Plus both of us had went through some depression before we met. It took awhile to figure it out, especially for me since this was my first boyfriend EVER. We decided to meet and ended up having the most amazing time. It felt so natural and comfortable… a year later we’re living together!

  • Debilee July 12th, 2013 12:11 PM

    So, so true! I loved reading this article!

    http://www.thatcraftylunchlady.com

  • Saana V July 12th, 2013 12:35 PM

    gosh i feel you.

    I mean long story short there were three of us since 2010 or 2011, me and these two girls on gosupermodel (oh god) and the other one was really toxic and needy and the other one is just the other half of me (my best friend, eeva) and yeah basically the other one was bad for me and i ended up leaving her out of my life, and even tho we once had a falling out with eeva ww still text nearly every day and are planning on meeting (i’m a bit afraid of this – what if she doesn’t like me really.)

    She once said something like “it’s ok that you are that negative because i’m super positive and together we form tao” and that’s possibly the best thing anyone has ever said to me and the reason i love her so much.

  • Hailey Mah July 13th, 2013 2:07 AM

    Even though my internet experiences were on a much smaller scale than yours, I can definitely relate. I used to spend hours every day on Tumblr. I would judge every personal post from the people I followed, especially my IRL friends, and I would sink deep into a pit of envy when going through my dash. This went on for a long time, and the thing about the internet is that it takes any emotion that you feel and accelerates it. So I became sucked into this addictive spiral of jealousy and criticism, until I realized I needed to quit, cold turkey.
    Danielle, it’s amazing that you managed to make your goals a reality, and that you’ve managed to rise up against the cycle of rampant internet hate that.

  • Ashley Lee August 9th, 2013 1:19 AM

    This really spoke to me. Thank you.