When I was 14, a school trip brought me to Kuala Lumpur, where an online friend resided. My classmates and I broke a long list of rules to sneak her into our hotel for a supper hangout. We cooked instant noodles in a kettle that was not meant for anything more than boiling water, and when a teacher came knocking on our door, we hid her in the bathroom with the shower running to avoid suspicion. In retrospect, I recognise that what we did was reckless, but it remains one of the brightest memories I have of my secondary school days.
Like most digital natives, I grew up being warned off speaking to strangers on the Internet. But the reality is that I’ve spent nearly the entirety of my adolescence dwelling in digital communities—first in fandom forums and Tumblr community blogs, then in Twitter group chats and Discord servers.
For those who engage in them, these virtual networks can become intrinsic parts of their lives. Hence, it’s unsurprising to me when I hear people say that they cherish their online community just as much as they do their offline ones. Over the years, I’ve witnessed friends—both online and in real life—meet their significant others for the first time on the Internet. To escape a toxic household, an old classmate of mine saved up for months to book a flight to London, where friends whom he’d only spoken to through screens opened their homes to him without question.
“Because digital platforms are so ubiquitous especially in Singapore, people tend to use them in ways that are similar to how they would interact in real life,” explains J Patrick Williams, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, whose areas of research include youth subcultures and digital media cultures. “Twenty-five years ago, I would call my friends during commercial breaks of television shows to talk about what happened. Now, you send messages to your friends in real time while you stream videos. No matter the era, technology has always helped to mediate a relationship where you can’t physically be present.”
“The person you become online can feel more true to who you are than how you portray yourself in real life”
Friendship, at its core, is built through the experiences that people go through together. In digital spaces, they might take the form of regular movie and game nights accomplished through the screen-sharing function, or gag gifts and meaningful presents alike delivered from different parts of the world. When I was in junior college, an online friend who happened to be an artist illustrated our entire friend group together in place of a group photograph. In university, the Discord server I joined for fans of a horror show had a sub-community of writers that ranged from students like me to aspiring novelists and university educators working on their research papers. We would use a writer’s sprint bot to force ourselves to concentrate, competing on who could write the fastest each time. For a whole semester, my essays and internship articles were crammed out in that fashion, but I only won once.
These experiences might look different from those shared among friends in person, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful or significant. And while offline communities have the advantage of being able to meet physically, their digital counterparts, too, have their advantages.
The friends you meet within digital spaces have no preconceived expectations of who you should be. The person you become online, therefore, can feel more true to who you are than how you portray yourself in real life. As a queer person, these communities were the first places I felt safe enough to be myself, and the people I met through them showed me what acceptance could look like.
“The Internet allows people a space where they can authentically be themselves—whether that means dressing, presenting and speaking a certain way, or expressing ideas that might not be welcomed by those around them,” explains Meredith Hrebenak, a Georgia-based licensed professional counsellor. “People can learn to better embrace who they are among others who will accept them in ways their immediate local community might not.” Beyond that, virtual communities can also diversify one’s worldview. Hrebenak elaborates: “Oftentimes, people grow up around others who are a lot like them—they have the same socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion or political beliefs. A big part of meeting people online is that you end up coming into contact with people you otherwise would not have had the chance to meet, and you get to learn about people from other backgrounds. That increases empathy and teaches you to be more open-minded.”
But for many, the draw of digital communities can be as simple as having an outlet to put aside everyday stress. Hrebenak shares: “These platforms are removed from the expectations of real life, which allows users to let their guard down and have fun in a way that I think a lot of us need to engage in more frequently.”
“Digital experiences might look different from those shared among friends in person, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful or significant”
Conversely, digital communities are prone to volatility, and it can be both exhausting and frustrating to witness the constant hostility online. Particularly on platforms where users can choose to remain anonymous, Williams points out the tendency for power dynamics to play a disproportionate role. “Individuals may use these platforms to express their opinion, then treat their opinion as fact without accepting or tolerating other points of view.”
Recently, one of my closest friends got bombarded by hateful comments because she responded politely to a Twitter user who was deemed problematic by the Internet. Upon further investigation, ‘problematic’ turned out to mean that the user had liked a negative tweet about a celebrity three years ago.
Still, Williams emphasises that no two digital communities are the same. The intricate, invisible rules that dictate what’s customary in each one can differ vastly, and for the most part, our experiences in digital communities are shaped by the way we choose to engage in them.
It’s taken me many rocky teenage years to learn to be a part of these spaces in a way that is healthy for me without losing sleep over negativity or relying too heavily on them for validation. Setting boundaries, both in terms of the people you interact with and the things you choose to read, goes a long way. When it comes down to it, digital communities can bring immense value to our lives. It is as Hrebenak says: “I truly believe they have the power to change people’s lives—whether that’s for the better or for the worse depends on how we choose to engage.”
Order your copy of the July/August ‘Reverie’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands now.