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Of digital-first interactions and strangely familiar friendships

Friday August 16 2019

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Social networking sites. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JAMES KAHONGEH
By JAMES KAHONGEH
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I was getting ready to leave work for home last week on Thursday when I checked my WhatsApp.

“Are we still on?” read a message from Karen in reference to our date. I froze, unsure of what to say. I was meeting Karen, my new friend, for the first time. The meeting, which was to take place at a coffee shop on the street adjacent to my workplace, had escaped my mind. Besides, I had a fully packed afternoon that day. Afterwards, I had planned to go home, prepare hot cocoa and watch Otherhood on Netflix while catching up with memes on Twitter.

‘‘Could we postpone?’’ I replied, with an accompanying frowning face emoji. But what I really wanted her to do was cancel the date.

‘‘But I’m already in town,’’ she texted back, adding two crying emojis to convey her disappointment.

In the end I meet her, albeit reluctantly. And she turned out to be an extremely outgoing person. We ended up having a very good time.

So, have you ever cancelled a date just to stay indoors and catch up with social media? Do you get relieved when people put off meetups with you without valid reasons? Are millennials a selfish lot who are unwilling to go out and meet other people? How has technology, and virtual relationships that come with it, affected the way we interact socially with others?

This week, four youngsters share interesting details about their experiences, telling us why it comes more naturally for them to stay in touch with friends exclusively on the web, than to take the trouble of meeting them in person.

STACEY OSORO, 22, STUDENT

Stacey Osoro.

Stacey Osoro.

Stacey is more likely to cancel a date than she is to go on one. To her, romantic or “hangout” dates are just too tiresome and mundane.

‘‘When you consider the fact that you probably need to dress up, put on some make-up and leave the comfort of your house, it sometimes becomes too much. I prefer to stay home in my pajamas watching movies or listening to music while catching up with my friends online all day,’’ she says, noting that it is a lot less strenuous.

‘‘I am more productive when I’m indoors, alone,’’ she adds.

For two years now, Stacey has not gone to meet anyone new. Part of the reason for this, she says, is that ‘‘these days few people are willing to honour their end of the bargain’’.

‘‘I have been disappointed several times after my friends stood me up. In some instances, they didn’t even care to explain why they couldn’t show up,’’ she says.

Stacey argues that on many occasions, people “invent” excuses’’ in the last minute and that this is quite disappointing especially “after you have sacrificed so much’’.

‘‘Friendship is cultivated by collective effort and mutual sacrifices. It is a waste of time and resources and deeply embarrassing, to dedicate your time to go out to meet someone, only for them not to show up. I’d rather stay indoors.’’

But that is not the only reason she has reservations about going out.

‘‘Also, some friends are hard to keep once you’ve met them. It makes you wonder if the friendship was genuine in the first place. I have met people who disappeared soon after the first date, which got me thinking that virtual friendships are better,’’ she says.

Stacey describes herself as a strongly opinionated person, and that this doesn’t sit well with everybody. For this reason, she has few real-life friends.

Whenever she has a pressing matter that she needs to share with someone, she would do so first with her online friends.

‘‘Real life friends are somewhat predictable. You almost always know what stand they will take on the matter at hand because you know each other well. Online friends are not so predictable. Their reactions and responses will mostly be informed by logic, perhaps because they have nothing to lose,’’ she reasons.

Stacey prefers the diversity of opinions sourced online, saying it helps her to make more rational decisions.

‘‘After consulting my friends online, I usually seek the opinion of my real life friends before making a decision,’’ she says.

She says she can tell her web friends anything and everything without any fear of being judged. “After all, we will probably never meet!’’ she says. So, have her online friends had any impact on her life? “Immensely,” she says almost immediately.

‘‘From our interactions, I pick valuable lessons, and this has influenced my perspective of life, and opened up a diverse, new world for me. I am now able to have intellectual and entertaining conversations with total strangers. And they are always present online whenever I need them,’’ she says.

While acknowledging that technology has enormously influenced how people socialise, Stacey believes that human beings ultimately have the power to choose how they interact.

‘‘It is meaningless to have many followers online, especially if you don’t actively engage all of them. Most millennials place too much emphasis on the garnering of online followers, than embracing genuine friendship.

 ‘‘Hanging out and going out for drinks with university friends is sometimes mistaken for genuine friendship. But this doesn’t constitute true friendship. You are only doing things together because you are in the same locality and share similar schedules,” she says.

Giving the example of the student from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology who recently attempted to gain access to State House, Stacey says that online friends can sometimes be a let-down, and that neither can be entirely relied upon.

‘‘The student had friends in real life and online, yet they did nothing to help him,’’ she says.

Contrary to popular opinion, Stacey believes that online friendships makes it possible for men and women to have platonic relationships.

‘‘Sexual attractions may come up, but it is easier to avoid them when the relationship is entirely online,’’ she says.

MICHAEL ONYANGO, 24, BLOGGER

Michael Onyango.

Michael Onyango.

For Michael, online relationships are meaningless if they don’t extend to real life. He limits his online engagements, and interacts only with those he knows well.

“Online relationships are superficial,” he says. ‘‘I believe in physical interactions. They are more candid compared to online ones. It’s difficult to sustain deceit in real life, but the opposite is true of online friendships,’’ he argues.

‘‘It is important to spend time with friends, to know each other beyond the internet, and to create new adventures together. This way, you could nurture long lasting friendships,’’ he says.

Whether or not Michael takes the next step of physically meeting a friend he has interacted with on the web, depends on whether there is a possibility of developing a more solid bond with the other person. 

‘‘If there is no prospect for that, I prefer to maintain the superficial online relationship,’’ he says.

Michael says he is even more cautious when meeting female friends. 

‘‘In most cases I’ll be the one to pay the bills, and this requires prior budgeting. I can’t just hang out with a strange female friend and spend money on them. I’m always very deliberate on whom and why I’m incurring costs on. If we must, we can meet at home.’’

Michael and his college friends still stay in touch, and meet regularly.

‘‘Social media only fills the gap in instances where I’m unable to meet them often. With social media, there is so much vagueness as to what true friendship really is. I have friends with whom we were close, but those friendships have moved online. Why do people feel like it is enough to engage online?’’, he wonders.

In his view, millennials have relegated intimacy to social media, which is why their relationships are rocky.

‘‘It is possible to hide behind a mask on social media, and this erodes its value and purpose,’’ he observes.

Even as he insists on meeting friends face-to-face, Michael admits that this has sometimes landed him in trouble, especially when he had to spend money on those friends.

‘‘A few months ago, I entertained a girlfriend in town, an expense I hadn’t planned for. It took me several weeks to recover financially. Nowadays I don’t spend money unless I have budgeted for it,’’ he says.

Michael too has dated online.

‘‘At first, the relationship was exciting. We would talk late into the night. However, it was not possible for either of us to know everything that was happening around our lives, which bred mistrust,’’ he narrates.

When it became harder for the couple to keep up without seeing each other, they broke up, only two months into the relationship.

‘‘I regret the experience. I will never date online again. For me, intimacy can only be developed by being physically present in the other person’s life. It is more authentic that way,’’ he says.

FLEVIAN HAKAL, 22, STUDENT

Flevian Hakal.

Flevian Hakal.

Whenever a date is approaching, Flevian always develops cold feet. She says dates create tension, especially if she is meeting the person for the first time.

‘‘I would rather read one more chapter of a book, or clean my house,’’ she says.

Rather than meet people in confined spaces such as restaurants, she prefers to be outdoors, and occasionally invites people to her church.

‘‘Instead of going to a restaurant, I sometimes invite people to my house for a cooking date. I find experimental cooking more therapeutic than sitting down for idle talk. Trying out different recipes is fun, and helps erode any anxieties,’’ she adds.

Flevian, a food, fashion and travel enthusiast, mostly connects and has forged strong friendships with people who share similar interests.

But even so, She doesn’t always make an effort to maintain these relationships.

‘‘In most instances, you don’t know the person, and you therefore don’t owe them any explanation if you go quiet,’’ she explains.

The nature of the relationship is also key.

“It determines if I will chat with them online,” she says. She doesn’t feel obligated to stay in touch.

‘‘Trust is critical. I need to be able to trust the people I talk to on the internet. I have to be certain that I’m connecting with the right person,’’ she explains.

Flevian adds that she has occasionally been carried away, and shared too much about herself.

‘‘Once you become comfortable in the online relationship, you start telling them things subconsciously, without realising that you are making sensitive revelations about yourself. The element of anonymity gives you a certain confidence to open up, and this is not always good,’’ she says.

While she may commit to an online relationship fully, Flevian says that making sacrifices for strangers is taking the relationship too seriously, too soon.

“You never know what you stand to lose if you make sacrifices for people you have never met. Sometimes it helps to meet people first, and establish a unique bond before making any efforts,” she says.

People who find physical interactions tedious, she says, are often those who have previously been disappointed by relationships. In her view, both online and offline friendships are important.

‘‘What’s the point of having many offline friends who can’t help you out when you’re in need?,” she poses.

‘‘The society has made us believe that true companionship can only be attained if you and your partner are in the same physical space. If your online friends are genuine and present when you need them, that’s what matters,’’ she says.

WANGARI KARIUKI, 21, GRADUATE

Wangari Kariuki

Wangari Kariuki.

 Having grown up in the digital era, Wangari has always had more friends online than in real life. There are friends with whom she engages with regularly, and those that she hardly speaks to.

‘‘I have managed to connect with many people from diverse backgrounds,’’ says Wangari, who finds it easier to socialise with people online than in real life.

‘‘Engaging online is ideal when I want to have conversations or express concerns and opinions that are either too difficult, or too sensitive to be had in real-life contexts. It also gives me time to assess my responses, and allows me to exit the conversation when it gets uncomfortable,’’ Wangari says.

For this graduate of agribusiness, developing a deep connection with online friends is effortless. She says that some of her online connections have since metamorphosed into solid networks of people with shared interests.

‘‘If we share a common career, hobby or passion, growing into a cohesive unit is almost natural. However, one has to be intentional, to talk to the other person at least on a weekly basis,’’ she says.

She says that time, effort and patience, are requisite to sustain any connection, because one has to pay attention to all the important details of their friends’ lives.

‘‘It is not easy to remember their stories or preferences and to always know what’s going on in their lives,’’ Wangari notes.

The main shortcoming of online connections, she says, is lack of personal touch, which often lowers the two parties’ levels of commitment to the relationship.

‘‘It is so easy to walk away even without a word when disputes arise. Sometimes they take offence about something you wrote on your blog or on Facebook,’’ she says.

Can she count on her online friends for help her in times of need?

“Any time. There are so many good people out there. People with good hearts and intentions. I’ve had tough situations when my online friends bailed me out, including lending me money.’’

‘‘Needless to say, the internet has made it easier for predators and sociopaths to thrive. You may share your concerns with someone only for them to take advantage of you. Some even use the information you’ve shared for selfish reasons,’’ she says.

Wangari once developed intimate feelings for someone she had met online, a relationship that ended with disappointment for both of them.

‘‘I met the man on Facebook and after chatting for few days, we exchanged telephone numbers. We would talk daily, and soon, we started sharing personal stories about our fears, struggles and ambitions,’’ she narrates.

At the time, the two were nursing heartbreaks, and were united by their collective grief.

‘‘Months later, he asked me to be his girlfriend, which I declined. I had my reservations because we hadn’t met in person yet. He was heartbroken and our conversations stopped.

‘‘I still miss our conversations, how we talked about anything and everything,’’ she says,

“But I have now learnt not to put too much trust on virtual friends.

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