We think a lot about how we turn online relationships into offline ones – what we think of less is how it works the other way round.

We think a lot about how we turn online relationships into offline ones – what we think of less is how it works the other way round.

Last year, I was obsessed with the internet. I spent months writing and thinking about online intimacy, a whole summer meeting nobody in person, relying simply on apps. Most of my romantic encounters took place online, many of them never crossing over to ‘real life’ at all; my phone was littered with names like ‘Richard Hinge’, ‘Simon Tinder’, ‘Sophie OkCupid’. Dutifully putting them in my phone on Friday nights, Sunday mornings, by Tuesday the conversation was dead: I had no idea who these people in my phonebook even were.

So it was a surprise to me, too, when I met someone at a party and we fell in love. There was no preamble, no holding each other at arm’s length, no weeks or months of online conversation: it was easy, instant and uncomplicated. Like the early days of any modern relationship, of course, we also got to know each other via text message, had the giddy trepidatious thrill of an online back and forth. But everything important happened when we were together.  

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that several months in we’re embarking on a short-term long distance relationship: once again, intimacy has moved online.

It’s an interesting switch. We think a lot about how we turn online relationships into offline ones; in fact, when we meet online, it can be an overwhelming preoccupation. Will they still like me when they meet me in person? Am I funnier online, sharper, quicker, more impressive? Will the chemistry survive a ‘real life’ meeting? No matter how confident I felt, every time I matched with someone from Tinder the idea they might not like or fancy me in person haunted me before we met, so aware I was that the image I projected online wasn’t quite accurate. It was part of the picture, yes. But the whole was obscured.

What we think of less, however, is how it works the other way round: how we experience offline relationships online. Long distance relationships are the most obvious iteration of this dynamic; after all, the day to day minutiae of your relationship is completely changed. You fall asleep together on FaceTime, not in person. You can’t do the crossword together anymore, so you do it on Skype. You can’t spontaneously have lunch together; you send pictures of what you’re eating instead.

But in actual fact, the dynamic exists if you’re two miles away or 220.  We don’t tend to worry about how our offline relationships work themselves out online – even if it’s where we spend most of our time talking to the people we love. The things that concern us are negative, generally – something taking a long time to text us back, being left on read. We sometimes forget about how rich our online relationships can be, how alive.

It’s not just in romantic relationships, either. As I write, my most active group chat contains 150,000 messages: stickers, voice notes, pictures of ourselves, screenshots, videos, gifs. We talk for 12 or more hours a day every day without fail – way more time than we could ever feasibly see each other in person. I’d never think of this group as ‘online’ friends: they’re just ‘my friends’. But the way we interact online is a vital part of how we love each other offline, too.

When we’re unthinkingly updating our friends or our boyfriends on what we’re doing that day, it doesn’t feel particularly meaningful. But it is. There’s a richness of intimacy to be found in our online lives; it’s just that sometimes, someone has to be 200 miles away before you realise it’s there.

Follow Emily Reynolds on Twitter.

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