Since the onset of the pandemic, I can count the amount of times I've hung with friends on two hands. During early and late 2020, there were months and months of seeing nobody outside of my household bubble. It’s something most of us have gotten used to. We just walk the same three park routes and hope the future might involve something more than having weirdly intense chats with the cashier at the local off-license because we're so starved of contact.
In actuality, most of us see people every day, all the time; a constant conveyer belt of faces. It's just that it's all virtual now. People post selfies from bed, selfies from the park, videos of recipes and puppies and pastel-coloured infographics about climate change. We see people's done-up living rooms, their kitchens, them standing in front of that full-length mirror in their corridor. We see them chat to the camera about sex toys. We see them post long captions about mental health and lockdown fatigue and the state of British politics. We see them constantly, we just don't actually see them.
Much has already been written about social media use during the pandemic, and how many of us feel glued to our phones. What's less discussed is how it's affecting the way we view friends and casual acquaintances. These people become the content they post, and after a while, you start to forget what they're actually like IRL. I have one casual acquaintance, for example, who seems constantly pissed off on social media. Going on their page feels like someone shouting at you from across the room. I've met them in real life though, and I remember thinking: ‘This person is a sweet angel.’ The two personas are miles apart, incongruously coming come from the same source.
What's begun to happen, for me at least, is that peoples’ IRL personas have been overtaken by their online ones. As our real-life experiences become further away, and our social media ones more omnipresent, it can be hard to remember what people are actually like. That friend who always posts chirpy videos about vegetable smoothies, but who is actually chaotic as fuck. That friend who seems totally unbothered on social media, but is high-key eager to please in person. That ex who comes across like an avid nature explorer online, but spent your entire relationship in his room, stoned, with the curtains closed.
I remember someone I follow – I can't remember who – once posting about the fact that they'd unfollowed a bunch of people on Instagram. “Don't take it personally if I've unfollowed you,” they typed out in a phone notes screenshot. “It doesn't mean I don't like you, it just means I don't like your online presence.” At the time I didn't really get it. If you don't like someone's online presence, surely you just don't like them? But one whole year into a pandemic – when “being online” has felt constant, inescapable – I finally get it. It's not personal. It's actually the opposite.
I sometimes wonder how similar my online persona is to my real-life one, and if anyone views me in a totally skewed way now. The people on my social media don't see the mundane moments or the times in which I'm struggling. If I look at my Instagram and Twitter, I appear much more well put-together and restrained than in IRL. I probably seem less friendly, too. I don't know. But what I do know is that she is not me. And if anyone thinks they know me based off my profiles, they definitely don't.
In the UK, we are now mere weeks away from our worlds opening up a little. Soon we’ll be able to see our friends' faces in the cold light of day, talking and laughing and sighing in front of us. We'll be able to read their body language in response to our own, not a camera lens. We'll be able to have conversations, with differences in opinion or agreements and room to manoeuvre. Life has been 2D for so long. But real life, out there, is fully multidimensional.