Young Adult Novels Are Finally Telling the Truth About Internet Friendships
Most pop culture makes online connection look ridiculous, but books are starting to reflect this important aspect of teen life
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Content warning: attempted suicide
I was sixteen when an internet friend first told me she wanted to die. She and I had met in person once, and for at least two years prior, we’d traded messages about Janelle Monáe and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’d been diagnosed with depression, and that night, when she thought she was going to end it, I was the first person she told.
I didn’t know what to do. She lived over a hundred miles away, and I didn’t have a phone number for her mom. So I just started messaging her — frantically at first, an onslaught of emojis and reminders of happy moments, until, in staccato sentences, she started responding. I told her I loved her. She told me thank you. When her mom came home half an hour later, she was safe.
Weeks later, I admitted to her that I didn’t really like the person I was. I didn’t feel like anyone at my high school understood me, and I was afraid coming out as queer would only make it worse. I can’t remember what she told me next, but I know it made me realize, maybe for the first time, that I wasn’t alone.
This type of friendship, built on secrets traded from a distance, is one I’ve rarely seen reflected in pop culture. Even though 57 percent of teens have made friends online and the vast majority have never met those friends in real life, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, portrayals of internet friends in mainstream culture still verge on ridiculous. Hollywood has used internet friendships as fodder for slick dramas, like the documentary-turned-MTV-reality-show Catfish, or as the scaffolding of social satires like the Aubrey Plaza-led Ingrid Goes West, where a Pennsylvania woman moves to Los Angeles to befriend an Instagram influencer who replied to her comment one time. (The central joke is that no one acts in real life quite as they do on social media.) In music, up-and-coming groups like Superorganism, whose members were internet friends before they were bandmates, have made meeting online an essential piece of their origin story, though few artists explore those relationships in their actual songs. But in literature, especially YA literature, there has been a quiet explosion of books that portray internet friendships as most people experience them: lifelines in a world where they don’t always fit.
Novels are uniquely positioned to capture the depth of an online friendship because fiction operates on the same frequency as online friendships. In each, the vehicle to understanding is written confession. It is the laying bare of your most intimate thoughts for a distant reader to piece into a narrative that, until then, no one else has quite understood.
Readers entering the mind of a fictional narrator are privy to the kinds of intimacies reserved for close friends. You can imagine a fictional first-person narrator typing up all of their hopes and dreams late into night the way I did for my internet friends.
When that novel centers internet friends, readers are primed to understand how two people who have never met could be so drawn together — and how the messages they send could hold so much power.
Mary H.K. Choi’s YA novel Emergency Contact begins with a panic attack. Penny Lee, an incoming college freshman struggling to disentangle herself from her “MILF for a mom,” finds Sam Becker, a 22-year-old barista, passed out on the street. The two had met once before because Sam is related to Penny’s college roommate, so when she drives him home and exchanges phone numbers with him, Sam quips that she’s now his “emergency contact.”
Though Penny and Sam hardly speak in real life, they launch a friendship through texts with a simple premise: they will tell each other all of the things they’re afraid to say in their real lives. For Sam, that means confessing his declining mental health; for Penny, it involves dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault and her disjointed relationship with her mom.
Sam and Penny aren’t internet-first friends; they met once before they started texting. But for them, as for the closest internet friendships, virtual space has helped them form a two-person support group. Neither is versed in the art of personal sharing, and texting offers them both the time to work through their thoughts and the distance to share them on their own terms.
That’s not to say that they all they do is swap secrets. Most conversations are less about lifelong struggles and more about whatever thoughts cross their minds — the tyranny of supermoons, for instance, or why the American healthcare system is such a mess.
Choi gives them space to wrestle through their own insecurities at their own pace. Their texts run on for pages and pages: it’s a YA contemporary novel that clocks in at nearly 400 pages. In interviews, Choi has joked that Emergency Contact is a book where “high-key nothing happens,” maybe because countless conversations don’t have immediate relevance to the overall plot. But these moments are far from inessential. They immerse you in Penny and Sam’s world. As a reader — if you’re listening — you begin to see how their trust forms. You feel them opening up. Maybe you even feel part of their friendship.
Emergency Contact, which hit the New York Times bestseller list soon after its March 27 release, is only the most visible of a body of YA books capturing how internet friends rely on each other. Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando chronicles the increasingly intimate email exchanges between a pair of college-roommates-to-be the summer before they start college, while The Lost & Found by Katrina Leno plays with magical realism to examine what it means to confess your deepest secrets to strangers in an online support group.
Only a novel can capture that kind of trust, because deciphering a novel is a more artful version of deciphering rambly texts from a friend. When that novel focuses on an internet friendship, readers become part of the dynamic: reading the back-and-forth texts, readers are drawn into the fictional friendship — say, Penny’s and Sam’s — at the same time as the characters are.
In Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson, another YA book, confession takes another literary form: fan fiction. Though Gena and Finn are at different points in their lives — Gena is entering college while Finn is leaving it — they share a love for the buddy-cop protagonists in the fictional TV show Up Below. Gena writes fan fiction about it, and Finn creates fan art. But for each of them, fandom is a way to reckon with their own lives: distant parents, relationship problems, and chronic hallucinations. Even when it isn’t explicit, each girl recognizes something percolating beneath the surface of the other’s fan art. So they start messaging.
Fan fiction is fundamentally about self-exploration, and the online communities that spring up around it therefore traffic in each other’s most intimate questions. What if I like girls? spills into What if Hermione likes girls? It’s a way to reach out without saying the words, because the beauty of the internet is that the right people will be there to listen. That’s what Penny and Sam found. That’s what reading prizes before all else.
Maybe one reason why YA books in particular have so adeptly explored these online connections is that the central idea of an internet friend — entrusting your secrets with someone on the periphery of your world — is an update of a much older children’s literature trope. It runs through Matilda and Miss Honey in Matilda and Liesel and Max Vandenburg in The Book Thief; in times of need, vulnerable young people gravitate to vulnerable strangers.
These friendships feel especially honest in a world in which even close connections operate out of convenience. Stripped of space, friendships revolve less around who you can drag with you to lunch or to a party and more around the ultimate point — to who cares about you for no other reason than because they do. Toward the end of Emergency Contact, Sam Becker summarizes in a phone call with Penny:
“Let’s be friends,” he said, suddenly serious. “Real ones.”
Penny nodded as tears coursed down her cheeks. “We are friends,” she said lightly. She breathed quietly so he couldn’t hear her cry.
“Yeah, I know that, but let’s be so good to each other.”
His idea is not that their friendship will only become “real” when it migrates out of digital space. Rather, he is acknowledging what he and Penny have been afraid to admit. There is something special about the two of them, about their long-winded text threads, about their tentative secrets. And he doesn’t want to hide from it anymore.
Since the first internet chatrooms, researchers have known there is something special about online connection. In a 1996 study, linguist Susan Herring concluded that people replied to email discussion chains, the precursor to the online forum, because they sought to express themselves in new ways and receive support. The next year, sociologists Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Barry Wellman “suggested that online communities provide emotional support and sociability as well as information and instrumental aid related to shared tasks,” as the 2004 paper, “Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out Online,” later summarized.
Writing for the BBC in May 2015, writer Charlotte Walker framed the emotional support inherent in online relationships as especially necessary for people with mental illness. “I couldn’t count the times someone has generously held my virtual hand through suicidal feelings or debilitating anxiety,” Walker wrote.
It is here that internet friends become lifelines. Choi’s phrase “emergency contact” is a stand-in for a larger truth that so many people live — the knowledge that your internet friend is the last line of defense, the person you go to when you need to be heard.
Maybe one reason literature has best captured the ways in which internet friends become lifelines is that it is difficult to dramatize texts on screen, which rules out most film portrayals. But the essential link stretches deeper. The medium is primed to explore internet friendship because it already places immense value on the power of someone else’s written thoughts. When you read a book about internet friendships, you experience all of the dumb jokes and uncertain confessions. You become part of friendship. And you see — in a way no other form allows — how two far-off people could develop such a deep trust.
Editor’s note: This piece originally said that the characters in Gena/Finn were creating specifically romantic fan art and fiction, which is not the case.