Where Does Friendship Take Place in a Digital World?
My favorite interaction with Boyce Upholt, the guy who created land that I live with me, happened eight years ago at a movie theater in Connecticut. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was with a couple of friends walking alongside the glowing posters in a popcorn- and Coca Cola-scented hallway towards the third X-Men movie. Suddenly, Boyce stumbled out laughing from a theater door right in front of us. He was with his own group of friends, and they all were pretty tanked.
“Boyce!” I said. He greeted me with characteristic nonchalance, as if he had expected to bump into me, almost literally, at some random movie theater between our respective suburban hometowns. He had just graduated from my college and was now on his way to teach on an American Indian reservation in South Dakota, apparently visiting home before the big move.
We chatted for a few minutes as his friends swayed next to us and mine walked ahead to our theater. It didn’t take long to run out of things to say, so I gave him a hug I’m not sure he wanted to receive, and he ended with a line I still use to make fun of him today:
“Well, I’m probably never going to see you again,” he said. “Bye!”
Even as a teen who had about as much a concept of graduating college as I did of buying a house or paying my taxes, I still knew Boyce was being a little melodramatic about his transition into the real world. He and I, after all, while not close friends, were part of the same family: At school, we ran cross country and track on a team that lived together, ate dinner every night at the dining hall together, ran naked through the campus library together. Boyce and his closest friends, the teams’ seniors, were the guys my classmates and I looked up to; we were the guys they took under their wings.
This meant that even if I didn’t stay in touch with Boyce, our circles still were far too intermingled for us never to see each other some day at a race or an old teammate’s house party, no matter where he moved. Still, I let his sentiment pass, because frankly I would have been darkly romanticizing my life too if I had just been plucked from my happy collegiate bubble and were about to be dropped in the prairie.
The irony here is not only did I see Boyce again, but we launched a website together. After a few years of sparse contact, in which, as predicted, he popped up whenever we both happened to get together with the same mutual friend, we reconnected over a shared interest in getting serious about writing. Now, we e-mail each other almost daily, swapping encouragement, griping about the industry, and trying to figure out how to stay afloat in the digital world between scheduling publications and bothering our contributors for new stories.
I’m in more frequent contact with him than I am with any other friend. After a year of working to crack his flat demeanor to catch glimpses of his hopes and dreams, it’s tough for me to imagine life without him.
There was another layer of irony to his comment about never seeing me again, though, that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. While the idea that we would forever drop out of touch was totally incorrect, I also can count the number of hours I’ve spent in the same room as Boyce in the past eight years on my fingers. In a strictly physical sense, he was almost right; I’m actually not that far from having disappeared from his life completely.
Boyce’s and my friendship is a friendship of the digital age, played out on pearlescent white screens over the past year and half across half of America; he now lives in Mississippi, and I move around the east coast. I’ve seen him exactly twice since land that I live‘s conception, once on a cold night by the cash registers in an Upper West Side Barnes and Noble when he was visiting family in New York and we realized we were fortuitously within a few blocks of each other, and a couple of weeks later at a Hartford restaurant for lunch, the first chance we’ve had since launching the site to sit down face-to-face.
This physical distance changes the tenor of our interactions, for sure. Boyce, as I said, is an understated dude; he approaches things plainly and directly, often with a hint of indifference, an air of acceptance of whatever hand he has been dealt. His difficulty to be read intimidated me at first, because I err on the side of excited and wanted to prove to him that, as a serious writing partner, I could match his intellectual remove. Eventually, though, I just resigned myself to being the effusive one in the relationship, and we developed a strong written rapport—he’s even begun to throw in an exclamation point once in a while in his e-mails.
But in person, or on our infrequent phone calls, his unexcitable nature still grates against my kiddish desire to provoke enthusiasm. I trip on words, we interrupt each other. Sentences trail off. These traces of awkwardness frustrate me, because I want to believe our accumulated virtual hours together should put us beyond them. Yet, of course, they also make sense; our bond was made by writing, not maintained by it. Usually friendships become weird when they transition from spending time together in the same place to staying in touch over Facebook and G-Chat, where body language and vocal cues disappear into a glowing void. But that is precisely where I’ve learned to read Boyce. His sentence lengths, his punctuation choices and the timeliness of his responses are my windows into his moods.
This reversal gives me pause, because his and my digital connection seems to hint at an increasing defiance of what historically has been almost a truism, that friendship needs to happen somewhere. Friendships grow out of shared experiences, and what is the root of shared experience if not some initial grounding in somewhere physical?–in meeting in person, hugging, spending time together in a house, a dorm, on a hike?
Boyce and I are an odd case, because we in fact once did share strong physical ties, but they just have little bearing on the way we now interact. As runners in college, we spent hours each week ritualizing 10 mile loops of land on which we poured out our hearts to our teammates and sweating and suffering next to each other as we ground out repeats on the track. When I see my other friends from the team, after brief formalities of catching up, we get right down to swapping stories about that time one guy spent an entire season running the same 1.7-mile road loop or another slipped on ice and split open his forehead.
Meanwhile, Boyce and I talk about the web. It’s almost a surprise on the rare occasions he references the team—like, Oh yeah, you were there, too.
When I sat down to write this piece, I was apprehensive of what this disappearance of a physical grounding for a friendship meant, both for my relationship with Boyce and for our Internet-savvy generation in general. The way we all interact with each other is changing, but the notion of a general trend towards friendships that take place nowhere–placeless bonds–seems a little too existentially barbed to swallow.
Thankfully, as I was struggling to come to terms with our digital rapport in time for this piece’s deadline, Boyce swooped in to save me. Here is his own condensed take on the way we interact, blasted from his iPhone at an airport to my laptop on the table in my DC living room (you can tell he was in a hurry because he doesn’t use any caps):
there is a certain intimacy to the actions that have helped our friendship develop. since we share writing, we may not always know the news of one another’s lives with the same frequency, but i feel like we get plugged more directly into one another’s intellectual, if not also emotional, cores. this runs along the same lines of what andrew has written about before, about how words create a place: in the absence of a physical space where we share experiences, we’ve been able to use words to create a space that is just as effective at sustaining friendship.
Physical space is not the only type of space, after all. On screens after screens filled with words–right here on this website–it seems Boyce and I have made our own place to get along.