Instagram DMs Are an Antidote to the Difficulties of Adult Friendships
In these conversations, I feel like we’re keeping the friendship alive, finding ways to fit moments of connection into our weird, sprawling, digital-and-not-digital lives.
Photo by Jovo Jovanovic via Stocksy; art by Leila Ettachfini
A few months ago, I flew to Mexico City with no real plans for the two weeks I’d spend there—I brought my best friend for one week’s company, a rudimentary grasp of conversational Spanish, and a “manuscript” I was hoping to “work on.” After I posted a few Instagram Stories set in the city, an old college friend who I didn’t realize lived there reached out. “I’d love to take you out!” Ana DMed.
We hadn’t seen each other in almost four years, nor had we substantially talked in about that long, but later that week—practically miraculously—we were drinking beers together on a boat in Xochimilco, catching up on all that had passed. By the second week of my trip, I saw Ana almost every day.
I didn’t have cell service, so we made plans over DM, meeting up for dinner and to work together in cafés. How incredible to see her face after so long, smiling at me over a margarita, as if we’d never left our college town. For the rest of my time in Mexico City, I marveled at the serendipity of it—how, despite geography, and then weirdly because of it, and Instagram, we were able to connect.
A few years ago, I’m not sure that would have been possible. I wasn’t actively trying to hang out with anyone; I never made a Facebook post asking who was in town or what was good. Through the relatively passive act of sharing what I was up to, Ana was able to reach out to meet up—surprising us both, I think, by how simple it could be.
I grew up on the West Coast and moved to the East Coast eight years ago, so I feel like my heart’s a tangerine that’s been split and shared among many different hands—all the segments are scattered around the world. There are so many people I care about, but so few opportunities to spend time with any of them. I like a standing Skype date or an impromptu Facetime call as much as anyone, but we’re all really busy sometimes. When I’m overworked, depressed, or generally overwhelmed, months can pass where I don’t talk to close friends. It’s easy to make self-deprecating jokes about how work schedules never line up or how hard it is to keep plans, but rather than settling for feeling lonely and alienated, I’ve realized there are new ways to keep in touch, and for friendships to fit the new shapes of our lives.
Now that it’s possible to do so many things remotely, from anywhere, it’s possible to live a life largely unfettered by permanent residence. In moving through the world according to our desires, our social circles have expanded outside of the “local” scenes we might have been used to in our youth, turning into flexible, sometimes casual, networks that stretch further. These friendships move in and out of our lives, fluctuating in seriousness, but if you’re looking, there can be moments (mediated, sure, by technology) where we can connect with each other through place, activity, or just sharing the ordinary details of our lives.
Let us momentarily set aside the understanding that our private lives are increasingly being controlled by a small handful of corporations, and enjoy a gratifyingly simple way of reaching one another instead. Watching my friends’ Instagram Stories is my favorite thing to do while hungover. I like to see what they’re up to. Unlike Twitter, the horrible garbage river I helplessly float along every morning until tapping out in self-defense, Instagram Stories feel like a waterfall of content I’m actually interested in. While most people’s Instagram grids are manicured, Instagram Stories allow for more unfettered, casual access to people’s daily lives—the kind of thing our friendships honestly probably didn’t require help with until we started getting more, well, global.
But look! Here is my friend with a dog! Information about a local political action! Information about a political action in a city I don’t live in! An unidentifiable, highly textured, zoomed-in-on piece of trash (?) posted by a graphic designer friend! Someone I love asking which earrings to wear with her outfit!
I vote on her poll. I vote on all of the polls, and I love it. I love the thirst traps. I love the garbled sound quality and shitty strobe lights in Stories sent from the club at 4 AM. I love when everyone in New York City takes pictures of the same sunset and they all propagate at once, like a movie playing out on multiple screens. I especially love when that happens while I’m not in New York, because then I get to wistfully miss my city even as I’m running away from it.
The Stories my friends post feel real; of-the-moment; accessible. They’re visual and easy to process, unlike Twitter threads, and can be passively enjoyed, unlike a high-activity group chat. Though in my opinion, the best part of watching Stories is leaving comments for my friends. It’s low-risk, high-reward, and easily gratifying to send a heart-eyes emoji, prayer hands, “wauuuu,” “what are you reading??” or, “hi you look so good!” Because Stories are always changing and forever at the top of your feed, I’ve noticed that I reach out more frequently. Some of these interactions are short; many are more in-depth catch-ups that even turn into plans. (Plans!)
In a time when our lives are increasingly conducted through our phones, a text can weirdly feel like an intrusion. It’s gone the way of the unexpected phone call or the (no subject) email: An incoming gray bubble is just as likely to be cancelled plans, the onset of a lover’s spat, a sudden assignment, or bad news as it is to be a friendly hello.
Sending a text out of the blue feels especially fraught. Where to begin? It’s always “It’s been so long!” or “Thinking of you!” Picking up a friendship that you’ve lost touch with feels daunting—will it be awkward? Will it be weird? Will there be too much to say, or worse, will you find you have nothing in common any more? Within a few back-and-forth bubbles, you’ve run out of things to say to each other except, perhaps, I miss you, and sometimes, that can be hard to figure out how to say, too.
Instagram Stories provide points of entry from which conversations can more naturally unfold—and a passive window into each other’s lives, with a pressure-free opportunity to “activate” it if you want to. You’re reaching out in response to something—an outfit; a vacation photo; an underlined passage in a book. An Instagram DM nicely subverts the dead-end “I miss you!” text: You’re still connecting; still being present—you just get there more quickly.
Justin is traveling; I last saw him in Paris. Right now, he’s in Japan, and I send a note about scenery he’s photographed. “Omg!” he writes back. “How are you?” There’s no chance that we’ll be able to hang out soon, but it’s good to talk briefly anyway.
After I post a particularly ~tender~ Story about being in love, Tracy teases, “Are you sure you’re not a Cancer?” Kelly and I have a long, winding conversation spurred by a mention of our favorite paintings; Zach and I gush over the new Mitski single after I post that I’m writing about her upcoming album; Sarah reaches out over DM to make plans now that she’s moved back to the city for the summer.
In these conversations with long-distance friends I rarely see—a few back-and-forth messages, every couple of days or weeks—I feel more present in their lives. It’s small, but tangible—like we’re keeping the friendship alive, too, finding ways to fit moments of connection into our weird, sprawling, digital-and-not-digital lives.
Long after I returned home, in response to a Story I’ve made about needing a place to cowork, Ana DMs me, “I wish I could work with you!”
“Oh!” I write back, remembering our afternoons hanging out in Condesa, writing and pitching essays while she studied for grad school exams. “That’d be so nice!” From there, we catch up about work, our mental health, and our love lives—all that’s transpired since I flew back to the States. I’m not sure when I’ll see her next, or when we’ll get to hang out. But we care about each other, and, suddenly, we feel present in each other’s lives from thousands of miles away. I double-tap the screen, sending her a big, red heart. She sends one back.