Online friendships weren’t a problem before COVID and they won’t be one now either
Words by Sofia Vavaroutsos
Illustrations by Pernia Jamshed
t was early summer when Mae Raquiz realized she had nothing to distract her from her loneliness—no job, no typical summer hangouts and no more preparations for university to keep her busy. Sitting at her desk, with Minecraft running on her computer but no friends available to play with her, the incoming financial mathematics student exited her server, closed the tab and took a quick break from the game to log onto Ryerson’s subreddit for the first time.
Questions from incoming students about course intentions, professor reviews and protocol for online lectures flooded the screen along with answers from regular contributors to the 17,000 person group.
Raquiz had heard from her friend at another school that if you wanted quick answers to administrative questions, as well as a way to join a university community online, joining a university Reddit or Facebook group was your best bet. So she made a quick post about enrolling in classes, tacking onto the end:
Before she could even turn back to her game, she got a response, then another. Though the first person Raquiz spoke to ended up being a dry texter, she quickly found herself speaking to 20 or more people at a time.
For Raquiz, these exchanges with fellow first-years started with bonding over a general sense of disorientation about university and slowly progressed into day-to-day conversation. “We had this connection of confusion about Ryerson, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
While Raquiz originally joined the subreddit to ask questions, she found herself surrounded by people with similar interests with whom she could chat about anime, manga and their favourite Twitch streamers. Now, Raquiz says she has four people from Ryerson’s subreddit who she keeps in close contact with—her newest friends.
Though she doesn’t know when or if she’ll get to meet her new friends during the upcoming school year, Raquiz says she’s grateful to already know people before starting at Ryerson. “It feels more comforting than going into an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar faces. I feel like I have people around me to figure out university together.”
With less people on campus, this key aspect of university life will be turned on its head, especially for first-year students who haven’t had the opportunity to establish strong relationships in person.
Some may feel like real connection isn’t possible without meeting a friend on campus. However, the 2016 novel How the World Changed Social Media discusses how people tend to view online friendships as something separate from “real” life, even though this is not always the case. Instead, the study treats social media as a method of communication, “much the same way that everyone treats the landline telephone.” In fact, the book states that “the entire range of offline relationships, from family through school and work to social relations in the wider neighbourhood” may also be found online.
Another study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong acknowledged that while offline friendships tend to have a deeper connection at first, the quality of the friendship improved over time for both offline and online relationships. Additionally, the initial differences between the two diminished over time, and the online friendship eventually caught up to the offline one.
Lara Aknin, a distinguished associate psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, says that when forming friendships online is the only option, it’s better to stay connected than to stay isolated. For students who feel that online connections might not be as valuable, Aknin offers some advice. “I certainly don’t think it’s futile or worthless—I actually think the need
might be even greater.” The World Happiness Report, conducted by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, uses data to determine the top predictors of happiness around the world, and having someone to turn to in times of need is typically the top, or among the top predictors. “I realize that’s not a perfect proxy for having student friendships on campus, but I think it underscores the importance of human contact and close human relationships for our wellbeing,” Aknin explains.
Forming connections online can also prove helpful in making the transition to university, maintaining mental health and being successful in classes. According to a 2008 study on the transition to postsecondary education, the majority of students who leave university or college before finishing their program do so in their first year. The research indicates that this is mostly because of a difficulty adjusting to the new environment. The article suggests that two factors may be key in helping students better adjust: a sense of university belonging and the quality of their friendships.
Making friendships online at Ryerson has always been possible, even before COVID-19. Students have always been able to connect through a series of Facebook groups geared towards students’ graduation years, specific programs or cultural backgrounds. From there, the group chats that spring from these groups offer opportunities for more candid discussion. Students can also connect, as Raquiz did, through Ryerson’s subreddit forum and even through Instagram DM.
The only difference now is that this is the one of the only ways to become a part of the student community.I
n the summer of 2019, before starting her first year in biomedical sciences, Caroline Cachero joined the Faculty of Science 2023 group on Facebook. From there, she was added to a group chat full of her peers who she spoke to nearly every day for the entire month of August. But later, when it came time for the faculty of science orientation, she found herself sitting alone. Despite all the time spent helping each other out with science questions, talking about their hometowns and even sharing prom pictures, Cachero recalls being nervous that day without the comfort of her online friends.
When her nerves didn’t allow her to focus on the presentation anymore, Cachero sent a message to the group chat, hoping for a response. Immediately, she got a message back. She turned around to wave at the person, who ended up sitting right behind her. Relieved, she shifted her focus back to the orientation, promising herself that she would say something after. When the presentation finished, she went up to him and introduced herself to his group of friends—they would soon become her friends, too.
Throughout the week, she would meet her friends Vener, Steven, Ali, Ujwal and Jason. This changed Cachero’s outlook on university. “After meeting some of the people from the group chat and talking with new people during the orientation, my nerves went away. I was just very excited after that to start the school year and finally be a university student.”
In Cachero’s case, she’s still friends with most of the people from that group, but that’s not how it always works—not all friendships carry on throughout university.
Cachero first met Charlize Alcaraz during frosh week after bonding in a group chat for Filipino students at Ryerson. Alcaraz was the only person so far that Cachero had messaged outside the group chat.
Sitting in an apartment-style suite in Pitman Hall, Cachero and Alcaraz bonded over a shared heritage and a new beginning for both of them while munching on Skyflakes, a Filipino cracker brand. For the rest of orientation week, the two, along with Alcaraz’s roommate, went to events together and continued to hang out in Alcaraz’s apartment.
Although Cachero and Alcaraz don’t speak very much anymore, Cachero says that she’s still grateful for the friendship they formed right off the bat. Being in different programs, it was difficult for the fast friends to keep in touch, and they drifted apart over the course of the year as Cachero’s friendship with people from her faculty grew stronger.
Research shows that spaces like the group chat for Filipino students where Cachero and Alcaraz first met are a solid way to make friends. A study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information showed that those with similar demographic traits, including things like culture and beliefs, are more likely to form a friendship. But beyond the likelihood of these connections, for racial minorities, being able to connect with someone from the same cultural community can be affirming to their identity. In a 2001 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researchers found that interaction with same-race peers was associated with a stronger sense of ethnic identity. In another study that looked at Black college students from mostly white high schools, same-race friendships were “an important component in these students’ successes and in their resolution of racial identity issues.”
Aknin says that though similar interests and backgrounds are one of the first things we look for when forming friendships, something she thinks is often overlooked is the importance of frequent contact. “The more you see someone on average, the more you tend to like them,” Aknin explains. “It’s not just true for people, it seems to be true for even visual stimuli like paintings—the more you see it, the more you tend to like it.”
So while there are many platforms to make online friends, it’s important to remember that virtual connections still require maintenance to stay close. The same way that you and a friend from class might catch up outside a lecture hall once a week, keeping in regular contact with online friends is crucial for building the relationship. Social media can help us do this, according to John Helliwell, an economist from the University of British Columbia.
“Social media is finally coming into its own as social media. Their power to make adolescents anxious, to fuel envy, to misallocate fame and to distort elections has already been demonstrated. They’re now being used for better purposes, to build and maintain social closeness in the absence of physical closeness,” he writes in a think piece for the Vancouver Sun.
Fast forward to her second year, Cachero and her friend group from her faculty still study together, go to restaurants and speak regularly. Their friendship is even persisting outside of school and through the pandemic—they’re communicating through Discord, video calls and playing online games with each other.
Experts recommend using online gaming as a way to keep in contact. In fact, online gaming reached a record number of players during the pandemic, according to an article in the International Journal of Surgery detailing the impacts of COVID-19 on different social factors and industries. Aknin notes that anything involving a meaningful exchange of content is helpful in staying connected.
Students in the United States took socializing virtually into their own hands by creating community spaces on Minecraft. Students from Berklee College of Music, Boston University and Emerson College created Minecraft servers for their colleges. Now, virtual versions of Berklee and Boston U campuses can be found in Minecraft’s creative mode, where students even hosted virtual graduations.
Aknin suggests that, given the fact that friendships form based on shared interests, post-secondary institutions should focus on giving students a space to connect where they can express their personalities. “When we’re talking about how to form friendships, I think we need to provide a platform or a means for doing so.”
Though it doesn’t revolve around gaming, at Ryerson, the Ryerson School of Journalism created a “Virtual Venn” based off of a community room in the Rogers Communication Centre frequented by journalism students. In the virtual space, students can drop in using a Google Meet link and socialize with whoever else happens to be logged on at the time.
When it comes down to it, some of Cachero’s favourite memories with her friends have to do with commiserating about the everyday annoyances of university.
She recalls ranting with her friends on the way back to Pitman Hall on a crisp fall night after a particularly difficult midterm exam. While talking over one another, she realized just how valuable it is to be going through a difficult time with other people.
“We were all in the same boat and going through the same struggles together. It made me really reflect and realize that having such a good support system made going through stressful times a little easier, knowing that I wasn’t alone.”
Aknin says the circumstances of the pandemic, and the confusion which surrounds it, could also give students something to connect over—even if the mutual feeling is frustration or uncertainty. “The mindset that ‘we’re all in this together’ gives people an interesting shared platform or narrative from which to build these relationships.” Another thing that draws us together, says Aknin, is the idea that we are all participating in this lockdown for the greater good. She says that this idea can help us feel more connected to others because there is an understanding that we are all taking care of each other and are experiencing the same struggles.
While lots of people are turning to online networks as a way to build friendships, it’s important to remember that not everyone has good intentions online. This is something that Raquiz can speak to personally after an encounter with someone on Ryerson’s subreddit forum. She recalls a conversation that quickly went past the limits of her comfort zone. Over the course of 30 minutes, the person went from asking generic questions about her major and her year to questions about her personal life and location.
Interactions such as this one can be anything from annoying to frightening. Raquiz has since blocked this user and has been more cautious when speaking to others, but she says that the experience made her think twice about who she may be connecting with. Now, Raquiz attempts to verify other users by checking out their Reddit and getting another social media account—preferably one which includes photos.
Norton LifeLock, a cybersecurity company, published 15 tips to help people stay safe online. The main piece of advice: never share too much personal information. As Raquiz noted, people with ill intentions can use things like your location, date or place of birth to harm you. The article also suggests being cautious on large social networking sites like Facebook since these large sites attract a ton of users with different intentions. Instead, they suggest joining more niche groups within these sites. Try joining something similar to the Ryerson Accepted Facebook groups or subreddit communities, and verify everyone who speaks to you to the best of your ability.
If worse comes to worst, as Raquiz’s situation did, the block button is your best friend. You don’t owe anything to people trying to chat with you online, and if someone makes you uncomfortable, use the tools available to you to get out of that situation.F
or Raquiz, meeting friends looked a little different than what Cachero described. It definitely didn’t involve walking up to someone after orientation and hoping to hit it off. Instead, it was posting a question on Reddit, seeing someone’s response and looking at other Reddit “communities” they’re subscribed to to see if they shared any interests. Then, she can decide to send a message to them about anything from her favourite streamers to animating on Adobe After Effects, with hopes to eventually talk about life in general. Raquiz’s and Cachero’s experiences with forming university friendships were different, but both managed to form connections regardless.
No one knows quite what the school year will look like. With our newly online campus and events cancelled or held virtually, the university experience during COVID-19 will be different. But, with many ways to connect online and countless great people to reach out to, it doesn’t have to be something you take on alone.
As people clear room in their Google Drive for new projects and pull out their planners, incoming students can log onto Facebook, Reddit and Instagram to get a feel for what it’ll be like to socialize this year. Maybe you send a quick introduction about yourself and proof of enrollment to one of the many student-run Ryerson Class of 2024 groups on Instagram, where you can see photos and bios of students in your program. Maybe you, armed with your best selfies and a quick writeup, post in one of two Ryerson Class of 2024 Facebook groups, hoping for some responses. Or maybe, you do as Raquiz did and type up a simple post in the r/Ryerson forum and wait to see where things go from there.