Let’s be honest. Getting older can be lonely, especially if you live by yourself. Maybe you’ve had a loss recently, or the kids have all moved out, or you’ve finally retired and have too much time on your hands. Worst of all, it feels like you haven’t made a new friend since you were thirty.
There are plenty of good reasons why it’s hard to find friends later in life, but top of the list is that there just isn’t enough time for everything at middle age. On average, we spend more than 40% of our waking life working. For those with spouses or families, most of the leftover hours go to them. Any large group of friends you might have had diminishes significantly over time, as children grow up, loved ones pass away, and old friends fade with distance or unavoidable life changes. If you are over 40, chances are that you’re spending more time alone year after year. By the time you pass middle age, alone is your default state.
Apparently, Loneliness is Timeless
In 2012, the New York Times ran an article called “Friends of a Certain Age”, which discusses this very phenomenon. (They ran it again in December of 2016 because “the topic is timeless”. You might live by yourself, but you’re definitely not alone.) Ultimately, as the author Alex Williams notes, the trouble as we age is that we rarely meet the three conditions necessary to form intimate friendships: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” These are the sorts of qualities that make high school and college such a good time to make friends. Whether or not you miss those days, they are difficult to replicate.
All isn’t lost, though. While Williams views technology as a screen onto which we project the illusion of friendship — what percentage of your Facebook friends or Twitter followers would drive you to the hospital in an emergency, for example — he fails to account for two major factors.
First, social media like Facebook and Twitter often aren’t distinct communities but rather networks predicated on a set of real world interactions. Basically, you’re friends with people you’ve already met in real life. This makes these social media very good at reinforcing acquaintances and very poor at pushing things further. However, social media and the technology behind them have moved beyond building webs of people we hastily promise to look up after an evening of shared shouting over bad bar music. It is now possible to form lasting friendships based on mutual interests in a live — and technologically mediated — setting. This is the second factor: with live video, chat, and streaming, communication has only become more effective and intimate across ever-wider channels.
Don’t Worry; No One Thinks You’re a Millennial
We know it can feel taboo to use technology for social interactions, especially among people of a certain age (wink, wink). After all, we’re always lecturing kids to get their heads out of their screens or to actually send a thank you letter. That isn’t bad advice, but let us convince you to ignore those people who think technology makes us less social. In fact, it’s a perfect tool for making friends later in life.
As mentioned earlier, the biggest complaints about making friends when you’re older usually revolve around not having enough time. “Repeated, unplanned interactions,” as Williams describes them, are difficult to organize when you work all day and come home to family at night. Even if you’re older and your life doesn’t have such demands, most of us haven’t dedicated time to friendship building in decades. It can be hard to relearn. Technologies like live chat, especially around specific topics of interest, provide an opportunity to have those repeated, unplanned interactions with strangers who share an interest. Do it often enough and one day, they simply stop being strangers.
Another problem is proximity. When we age into and past midlife, our mobility decreases. Our bodies aren’t what they used to be, we get sicker more easily, and transportation can be difficult to access for a multitude of reasons. Getting out of the house and to a bar is no longer a simple stroll down the street but a calculated (and tiring) endeavor. However, if you have a home computer or a mobile device, you have worldwide communities at your fingertips. Whether you’re interested in in golf, Game of Thrones, soap carving, or collecting samurai swords from the Ashikaga Shogunate, there’s a place for you, and it’s on your internet device. How’s that for proximity?
Finally, there’s the need for vulnerability, one of the most difficult parts of making friends at any stage of life. No one can teach you to be open, but technology provides ways to ease yourself into a strange situation. First, many forums and chat rooms allow you to call yourself whatever you’d like, a reflection of the larger idea that on the internet you can be whomever you want to be. This buffer allows you to be vulnerable in a way you might not feel comfortable with face to face. Maybe you tell someone you like their smile, or speak out about a cause you care about, or sing along to your favorite song live on mic. There are plenty of supportive places online where people share ideas and encourage each other.
This ability to present multiple versions of yourself is not dishonest, but rather self-fulfilling. You can be any and all the things that make up who you are. For those people you become close to, you can always offer more information and deeper truths. Speaking openly and listening to learn are both incredibly important when making connections online, and practicing these skills can build all sorts of meaningful relationships. These skills also apply to real life, if you find the time and energy to get out for an evening of mingling.
Worldwide Community In Your Hand
Whether you’re confined to your home because of illness, you’re living in a foreign country for work, or you want to learn a new skill or experience another perspective or broaden your horizons in any way, online communities can provide the friendships that seem elusive or exhausing outside your front door. Services such as Paltalk, Twitch, and Quora bring people together from all over the world based on shared interests. Each community is different. Across thousands of chat rooms, live streams, and forums, you can talk politics, practice another language, watch your favorite stars, or simply listen to music. You can tailor your own experience, finding the groups that are right for you and making connections based on passions rather than convenience.
Live communication, whether it be text chat or video streaming, is crucial to the modern community. Being able to share not just an interest but a specific moment — an inside joke, a hot take, a cool tune — creates the very “unplanned interactions” that help build friendships. Finding those friends online also means you can be whomever you wish while still sharing your authentic self. And as for proximity, there’s nothing closer than a mobile phone in the palm of your hand.
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