A few weeks ago I unexpectedly ran into two people who I haven’t seen in a year. The year before that I only saw them a few times in total. But up until two years ago, they were part of my very closest small friend group.
It was very strange seeing them again. A lot has changed in all of our lives. I certainly feel like I’m very different to who I was when I was close with them. But at the same time, talking to them again made me feel like almost no time had passed since the last time.
Running into an old friend is a very unfamiliar experience for me. I’m pretty young anyway, so I haven’t had much time to develop and then lose touch with friends. I’ve also hardly had any ‘friends’ in the first place. Most times when I’ve lost touch with people (like when I left primary school, and then when I left secondary school), it’s been a relief to have them out of my life. But losing touch with someone who I actually have largely positive memories and feelings towards – that’s never really happened before.
We lost touch because we all left college and were no longer seeing each other daily just out of habit. Everyone became busy with their new things and meeting up became more like a chore than anything else. It’s been two years since college ended and I still have no idea how I actually feel about the situation. Am I sad? Do I miss them? Do I care? I’m not sure. I really did enjoy spending time with them when we were close. But I don’t feel like I desperately want to spend time with them now. We would have very little to talk about, not much in common, and no shared reference points.
So, were we only friends because we happened to be at college and school together? It can’t be quite that simple, because there are plenty of people who I went to school and college with, but I certainly didn’t have ‘plenty’ of friends. Is it just that we happened to be in more classes together? Is it just because they took pity on me and invited me to sit with them at lunch when they saw me by myself? (Yes, that really is how we first met).
If we have other things in common apart from college, then why have we lost touch? Surely if we really enjoy each other’s company, we should all still be putting in just as much effort to see each other as we always used to (even if external circumstances made that rare or more difficult). But that’s not the case either. When we left college, I pretty much accepted that we were going to lose touch, and soon gave up on trying to initiate contact. Most of the others seemed to do the same thing.
Did we stop getting in touch so that we wouldn’t be saddened by letting it happen organically? I don’t think that was the reason for me. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, so I was resigned to the potential sadness involved, regardless of when or how we lost touch.
In the last few years, I have increasingly developed online friendships. These are a very real and important experience for me, but they also cause me even more confusion about the definition and purpose of friendships. If I made friends with the school friends at least partly because we were at school together, then why did I make friends with people online? We certainly haven’t been forced together by circumstance. Some aspects of getting to know each other online are extremely inconvenient: geographical distance, timezone differences, lack of easy ways of getting in contact. And yet it’s happened anyway, and some of my online friendships are much closer and more significant to me than in-person friendships of the past. Why? I don’t know! I don’t understand any of it! What are friends, anyway?!
My instinct is that my online friendships formed because we had a lot in common. Online profiles make it really easy to summarise your interests, identities, and personality. A significant number of my online friendships happened because I read someone’s profile and then sent them a half-joky message saying “We have lots in common, we should be friends!”. That kind of thing can’t really happen in-person. Instead you have to try to subtly collect information about a person until you can decide whether you will be capable of getting along. I guess some people might find that easy (or even enjoyable?), but I certainly don’t.
I suppose it’s also easier to reach a wider pool of people online. It’s easier to narrow down the type of people you’re exposed to by your own interests and preferences. So that makes it possible to be a lot more picky. If I wanted to be friends with autistic people at college, there would have been maybe two or three people who I was aware of. If I want to meet autistic people online, all I have to do is write a bit about myself and I end up surrounded by a community of autistic people.
So the friends I make online are likely to be more closely suited to me than people I meet in person. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel sad about losing touch with my college friends. They were really good friends at the time, and were very important to me. But they were important as my school and college friends. Now we aren’t at school or college anymore, I don’t need school and college friends – and neither do they. They have their own new friends now: university friends, work friends. And I have my own new friends too, friends that are suited to my life as it is now.