Making Modern Friends

I haven’t used major social media channels in more than a decade

but I work in public as an Open Source Software contributor. A not-insignificant portion of my work is tied to communicating with people all over the world who contribute to the same codebases as me. An inevitability of working online, attending meetups and conferences, and diving into the intricacies of something like query engines is that you start to see a lot of the same people in the same channels. Enough online interactions and you get to know them, sort of.

I’m in technical writing groups. I go to UX meetups. I participate in Discord and Slack communities related to a broad range of topics that interest me: data engineering, static site generators, mechanical keyboards, docs-as-code, vim configuration files, open source documentation… I’ll spare you the boredom of an exhaustive list.

What’s weird is that the more time you spend in online communities, the more you’ll recognize overlap in these channels. It turns out that the same rabbit holes that led you down a path toward some niche community ensnared other people in that same community. You’re at least similar enough that you decided to join the same group. You start to chat with someone in one of these professional or hobby channels about some technical topic, and the back-and-forth eventually becomes real conversation. Before you know it, you know a little about where they’re from and what they do for fun and why they share your conviction that git commit messages should not end in a period.

What do we call these people that exist as more than a LinkedIn connection but that you don’t know outside of a digital context? I really like the term Modern Friend that Ryan Dawidjan uses to describe this relationship.

There are people in our lives that occupy the space that exists between ‘acquaintance’ and ‘friend’, and something I’ve been trying to do recently is to invest more time in the people in my life who I’ve met through digital channels.

My modern friends may not be the folks that I am sharing my deepest, darkest secrets with, at least not initially, but they deserve more than a “Hello, Person I’ve never met who happens to be in the same industry as me, thanks for connecting with me.”

Algorithms have broken the value proposition for a lot of our social interactions. The original benefit of social networking was the networking, and I feel like data-driven communication in our digital environments has damaged the organic and spontaneous exchange of ideas that make me such a staunch advocate for open forums and collaborative online work. I work in the data industry, so I understand the business value of all the data that we are collecting.

We’ve been trained now for Pavlovian responses when someone new “likes” our latest LinkedIn job update. You know, the one carefully curated like an Oscar acceptance speech. I think it’s pretty unfortunate that we care about things like content views, reactions, and interactions. I’m not immune to it, but I try to be cognizant of it.

I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend (a long-time friend, not a modern one) about the engagement that his LinkedIn post was getting.
I know this isn’t exactly a novel idea, but lately I’ve been feeling such a strong urge to subvert that - to fight the desire to care about the number of people who see a thing. There’s something gross about it.

Maybe I still have this pipedream that I can write a novel or a short story collection. There’s pride at play. There are competing forces within me: one that wants to write because writing is good for me, and another that wants to be on someone’s bookshelf next to Faulker or McCarthy (I can dream, right?) after I’ve died and my thoughts are no longer something that can be shared. I don’t know. I feel like a lot of the writers I look up to would be disappointed that I give a shit about the number of people who react to something I post rather than whether or not the words that I write are true to my feelings in that moment.

I think the scary thing is that we do this with people, not just with words

Too frequently, we think about people in terms of ourselves and what we gain from interactions with them. The chemical feedback of a well-received social media post is nice, but just as I’m choosing to write for its own sake, I want to truly engage with the people that I come into contact with. Occupying the same space as someone else (even a digital one) provides an opportunity for a magical exchange of ideas.

Ideas are a much more powerful currency than clout

If you need some motivation to invest in your modern friendships - other than the fact we’ve all been cooped up inside for years and I’m convinced that we collectively lost some of our humanity and empathy for our fellow humans during the pandemic - think on this:

  • Creativity is simply the act of connecting contexts in new ways
  • What can we make, or accomplish, if we connect our context to someone else’s?
  • What if we really invested (time, energy, ideas) in the people who occupy our spaces, shifting the focus from ourselves?