Before the Covid-19 pandemic and the isolation of lockdown even reached US shores, Americans were lonely. A recently published survey showed that in 2018, loneliness, defined in part as few social interactions and a sense of lacking social support, was at an all-time high among US adults. Young people in particular, many of whom lack the intimacy of IRL interactions, reported the highest levels of loneliness.
So when cities and states across the country imposed social distancing rules to slow the spread of the coronavirus in March, the loneliness phenomenon was confronted with an unconventional challenge. Access to office spaces, gyms, bars, and other physical spaces that help facilitate social relationships was gone. But much like dating, people have searched for ways to not only virtually connect with friends and family but also seek community and forge new friendships amid this period of prolonged isolation.
“The pandemic really showed me the people I really treasure and value in my life,” said Portland, Oregon, resident Maria Lorienes Solis, who found new friends through the online K-pop fandom during the pandemic. “We lost a lot of connections, but we also made some. Obviously, I never wished for the pandemic to happen, but I do see a silver lining in my life. I gained some blessing under these circumstances.”
The internet has played a huge role in these virtual connections, offering profound ways for people to link up digitally while abiding by physical social distancing rules — whether that’s meeting new people who also like listening to BTS, playing the same video games through Facebook groups, or boldly reaching out to people on Twitter or Instagram they never thought they’d talk to.
Vox spoke with several people who forged these “unlikely” digital friendships in recent months. One thing they had in common: They were all looking for a sense of community, specifically people with whom they share similar interests and hobbies. In many ways, they say, these newfound friendships would not have been possible if it weren’t for Covid-19.
“It was an accidental friendship. … I would never have gotten the chance to meet any of the people in the group in person.”
Juan Escalante, 30, Washington, DC; Cristela Alonzo, 41, Los Angeles; Libby Condon, 33, Green Bay, Wisconsin; Rebecca Cokley, 41, Washington, DC; Sydney Robinson, 27, Pensacola, Florida
Before the onset of the pandemic, this group of friends hardly knew each other. But they had one thing in common: They all played the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Nintendo Switch. Juan Escalante, who created what was initially a small group of people he knew from Twitter who had posted about the game, wanted to build a fun community to serve as an escape from the uncertainties going on in the world. Little did he know the group would quickly grow and turn into what feels like a lifelong friendship.
“We all kind of evolved over time and realized that we were a lot alike, even though we were living in different places and [are] different people in general,” said Cristela Alonzo, a producer and comedian. “It was cool to have a community [where] because we were strangers, we didn’t have any judgment or assumptions about each other, so it made it easier for us to bond.”
As the seemingly endless pandemic dragged on, the group evolved from chatting about the leisure of Animal Crossing to nurturing a friendship that involves sending each other mail and gifts, as well as comforting and offering advice to one another at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests or when someone lost their job.
“The thing that made us so close is that in the game, you [can virtually] send things to people and help people out, so we can all be extremely generous in a way that doesn’t actually cost us any money or barely any time, like sending different kinds of fruits or clothes,” said Sydney Robinson. Inspired by the game, Robinson now physically mails gifts to people in the group and once crashed her UberEats app after sending food deliveries to six different cities. “It’s all very easy for us to love each other and be hopeful.”
For Rebecca Cokley, a disability rights activist, the group has “been one of the best things for [her] mental health.” She didn’t have a Switch at the beginning and was consumed by stress brought on by the crises happening around her, including “watching disabled people die all over the country and having to respond 24/7.” One of the other group members saw on Facebook that Cokley was planning to buy a Switch, so everyone who already played together surprised her with one and asked her to join. “There aren’t many places like this,” Cokley said.
“As an introvert, quarantine has not been hard for me, but this is something I had no idea I needed,” said Libby Condon, who’s known in the group as the Oprah of Animal Crossing because she owns two islands and virtually provides people with necessities. “We’re just a group of people who are so similar but so vastly different. Our lives are insane, and it is so cool to have this tiny community that I get to talk to every day.”
Alonzo, who has severe depression and anxiety, said she was “completely frightened” at the beginning of the pandemic to see how she would cope. “I really thought it was going to be bad, but it hasn’t,” she added, “and it’s all because of this group.”
“We all met each other during some vulnerable moments, so when I see them landing a good gig or having a good day, I can’t help but feel proud because I know the struggle.”
Rachel Summer Cheong, 25, Austin, Texas; Madison Mendez, 23, San Francisco
The arts and creative industry is among the many fields struggling to stay afloat in the pandemic. But some artists, like Rachel Summer Cheong and Madison Mendez, are taking this time to create content, network with other artists, and foster friendships. Cheong, an illustrator, started a Facebook group in April for Asian women, queer, and nonbinary artists to share creative work they’ve done while staying at home.
“I think a lot of creative people feel that they’re this weird, sensitive, outside-looking-in [type of person], but if you get a bunch of people like that together and then they all connect, it’s really a special and magical moment,” Cheong said.
Cheong invited a bunch of her creative friends to join, allowed them to add other people they knew, and even cross-posted the group to a larger artist community on Facebook. Members would champion each other’s artwork, post relevant articles, and share photos of their pets. Surprisingly, she said she never came across one negative comment.
Cheong met Mendez, a model and actor, through the group, and they got to know each other through various digital social activities, such as drawing on doodle nights (when they choose a topic and doodle together on an online board), organizing mutual aid funds, and meeting virtually for group art challenges. They even found ways to support one of their artist friends whose mom went into a coma during the pandemic, holding an online vigil and drawing flowers on a doodle board to represent physical flowers being sent.
“Rachel is so cool, and I’m glad I met her,” Mendez said. “She’s always teaching me things about her experience and art. We really became a tight-knit group of people, and being able to reach out to anyone in the group and having that environment to get to know people on a deeper level is important.”
Before the pandemic, Mendez described her daily life as a packed schedule of photoshoots and content creation that left very little time to meet new people. But now that she spends her days at home, she’s been channeling all of her “go, go, go energy” into making new friends. “It really opened my eyes to look at more opportunities to join virtual groups and meet new people in the future,” Mendez said.
Beyond her newfound friendship with Mendez — who noted that their connection “never would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic” — Cheong said the group became a safe space for people to express themselves and vent, especially as the country goes through a serious moment of racial and climate reckoning.
“With everything going on and all of us so deeply involved in caring for our communities, people forget that their own tanks can also get tapped out,” Cheong said. “So just having people in your life who are thinking about these bigger movements alongside you … and checking in — ‘Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to just kind of fill your tank?’ — I think that’s really important.”
“It’s really nice to look forward to something, but it’s even better when you look forward to something together with people who understand.”
Maria Lorienes Solis, 21, Portland, Oregon; Marianne Alvarez, 24, Brentwood, California; Elaika Celemen, 23, San Bruno, California; Danielle Mirano, 19, Antioch, California
If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture, you know that BTS, the seven-member South Korean boy band, has attracted an international fan base that calls itself the ARMY. For these four ladies, their own faction of the ARMY was created via ripple effect.
Marianne Alvarez, who was already an ARMY member, reunited with Elaika Celemen before the pandemic. (They knew each other from a youth ministry group.) But it wasn’t until March, when Celemen began listening to BTS, that they bonded over being stans. Alvarez later pulled in Danielle Mirano, whom she had met in the same ministry group; Celemen later inducted Maria Lorienes Solis, a former college classmate, into the ARMY, too.
By May, they all connected through their so-called “stan Twitter accounts,” which they use separately from their personal profiles to stay updated on BTS content, talk about all things BTS, and interact with other ARMY members.
“After school ended in May, I was super bored and I had nothing else to do, so I thought I might as well check out these links that Elaika’s been sending me this whole time,” Solis said. “Next thing I knew, I was making my stan Twitter account.”
Mirano, meanwhile, would stay up until 3 am watching videos. “I got into BTS before quarantine, but it was quarantine itself that really launched it,” she said. “At the time, I would only talk to Marianne, but I would see Elaika on stan Twitter and always thought she seemed cool. Then Maria hit me up and was like, ‘Hey, you’re a baby ARMY [new BTS fan], I’m a baby ARMY, too,’ and I really thought this was the nicest thing and I felt so warm inside.”
Members of the group would send each other BTS content and watch videos together using FaceTime. At one point during the pandemic, BTS started doing surprise livestream videos, prompting them to create shifts and vow to wake each other up whenever BTS went live so nobody would miss it. “It was so funny, but at the same time it was so nice to have people make sure you weren’t missing anything you were interested in,” Alvarez said.
Beyond a shared love of BTS, the four of them formed a special kind of friendship talking about other issues going on, such as the ongoing protests for racial justice, the wildfires ravaging the West Coast, their personal problems, and their overall mental health and well-being.
“What I really appreciate about this friendship is that it started out as just talking about BTS, but eventually we talk to each other about other life things, too,” Alvarez said over Zoom, photos of BTS members in the background. “Over time, the friendship grew in that way because it evolved from just being ARMY together to actually being friends. I didn’t expect to gain new friends during the pandemic, but I did through BTS, and I’m really thankful for that.”
With every drop of BTS content, livestream videos, and most recently the band’s new single “Dynamite,” their friendships grew closer. “One of my fondest memories is after the ‘Dynamite’ music video was released,” Mirano said. “We were FaceTiming each other, and we were just collectively screaming and crying a little bit, and we just understood each other.”
“Even though we’ve never met in person, we definitely know each other a lot better because expectations are different online.”
Avery Kim, 21, Sandisfield, Massachusetts; Benjamin Oh, 23, Towson, Maryland
Throughout the pandemic, Avery Kim managed to remain highly involved in politics, specifically boosting Joe Biden’s campaign at a grassroots level. She manages the Columbia University for Biden account on Twitter, where she virtually connected with Benjamin Oh, the person behind what is now the Young Asian Americans for Biden account.
A few messages and a phone call later, they decided to launch a Korean Americans for Biden campaign on the social media platform. Their second call, through Zoom, was what really kicked off a friendship based on common interests. “What I had planned to be a quick call to break the ice turned into a seamless conversation that lasted hours,” Kim said. “Those hours flew by and it wasn’t until we saw the time did we realize just how long we were on the call.”
It was all political and professional at first, but eventually their friendship evolved into meme-sharing, bonding over Korean music and culture, and sending photos of their pets (who both love to nap). Their text messages and DMs increasingly turned to what seems like friendship between two people who spent some time together in person, when in reality, they have yet to physically meet each other.
“Whenever we would get celebrities following these accounts, we would be equally excited about them,” Kim said. “And I think that was something that was really nice, because it’s sort of hard to meet new people that just automatically have the same interests as you and get equally excited when someone like Ken Jeong follows the account.”
“The content thing is especially important, and we found that to be true across our friendship — that the digital age and the pandemic [have] really caused us to connect a lot more by content-sharing,” Oh said. “Across all the conversations we have, it’s really nice to have someone else [with] similar interests and similar hobbies and characteristics. It’s hard to find people like that.”
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