What I Learned When I Replaced Real Life Friends with Online Fandom

Lesson one: Step away from the screen.

By Phoebe Neuman

When I sat down to think about this month’s editorial theme, the first thing that came to mind was a time in my life when I was actually missing real life connection.

The funny thing about deep relationships (for me at least): you don’t realize just how valuable and necessary they are until they’re gone.

During my junior year of college, the close-knit group of girlfriends I’d spent years with, suddenly imploded. Instead of turning to other people in my life for support, I instead turned to the vloggers I followed on YouTube to give myself that feeling of connection that I craved — without all the emotional vulnerability that comes from  IRL friendships.

It took me years to understand that those little glimpses of intimacy I caught in my favorite YouTuber’s latest video would never compare to the real life connection I was missing out on. And that I needed to push myself outside of my comfort zone in order to get it back. Here are a few other things I learned along the way as well.

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Being Vulnerable is Everything

The virtual group of friends I created for myself was one where I could drop in and absorb bits of their lives—new boyfriends, new apartments, new haircuts—without having to dole out any of the emotional investment needed for actual friends. And for a while, it seemed to work. I felt connected to these women I saw every day, and actually found myself looking forward to settling into one of their videos as though it were a catch-up call with a friend.

What I was experiencing was a parasocial interaction, or the illusion of a relationship that comes with very real feelings of attachment. We’ve all experienced this type of connection — if you’ve ever cried when a character in your favorite TV show dies, you definitely have — and they’re only a problem if your virtual relationships are the only relationships you have in your life. That’s because (surprise!) these interactions lack the vulnerability that comes with connecting with someone IRL.

It’s no secret that opening up to another person can be scary, and I definitely still struggle with it. But on days when I’m feeling like slipping back into my YouTube safety zone, I remind myself that fostering real-life connections by sharing myself with others is the only way to build a life full of love and friendship.

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Let those Protective Impulses Fuel Friendships

Though I was definitely drawn to these vloggers as balm for feeling burned by my friends in real life, the influencer industry is actually one that I find interesting even when I’m in my healthiest place. So, when I finally started to push myself to make new friends in real life, I used that interest to foster new connections. One the friendships I now hold closest was sparked when I revealed just how much I loved to watch beauty tutorials and vlogs — and discovered that she loved them just as much as me.

Since then, we’ve connected over countless other things, but still love to dish over the latest scandal rocking through the beauty influencer community. So if you feel like you’re missing some real-life connection, use whatever hobby you’ve been engrossing yourself in as a jumping-off point. Once you find a new friend with a common interest, opening up and being vulnerable comes much more easily.

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image by hannah haston

Keep Social Media in Check

Those parasocial relationships I just mentioned? They can happen with your real-life friends as well. Think about it: we all feel like we’re keeping in touch with someone even though we’re simply just double-tapping their latest Instagram post. Watching your friend’s Instagram story can feel like you’re getting a glimpse into her daily life (making you feel connected), but don’t let that be the only interaction you have with them. Because actual connection only comes when you put in the work to make it happen.

So next time you comment a Yasss Queen! on her post, text her too. Set up a time to meet IRL over coffee or lunch to find out what’s really going on in her life. The connection that comes out of that interaction will be way better than whatever’s coming through your screen — I promise.