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    8 MIN READ

    No Internet Connection

    Can you really make digital friends? 

    Oat squad. The self dubbed gang of Torontonian comrades who maintained their bond from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. They fascinated me. I, a voyeur across the U.S. border, became one half of a parasocial relationship (before I had the language to call it so). I fancied myself a cultural anthropologist for faithfully refreshing their social media, authoring my own stories based on pure observations of their social dynamic until those ones and zeros sucked me into their vortex—or maybe the rule of attraction shifted me onto their timeline. There was something about my encounter with the Oats that felt devoid of autonomy. The romantic in me chalked it up to destiny, the cynic to random happenstance. Whatever it was, the only thing I could do to my near decade long entanglement with the Oats was submit.

    Our cultural obsession with categorizing each other into roles and archetypes makes no exception for our social cliques. The internet is saturated with memes, commentary, buzzfeed quizzes, and wikihow articles about friend groups and our positions within them. Twitter had a good run poking fun at “leaders” of the friend group, and short form video essays litter Tik Tok with analyses on how different hierarchies can play out within friendships. We naturally organize ourselves in relation to one another, and often these groups are microcosms of larger social dynamics and systems—for better or worse. I always told myself my aversion to placing myself in a friend group was actually a testament to how special I was on my own—a clear sign of American individualism giving me brain worms. The harder truth was that in groups bigger than two or three, I simply felt lost. Friend groups were a garment and I was misshapen, the puzzle piece that just didn’t fit.

    My entrypoint into the Oat’s world was Julian, whose personality can only be described as unconcerned with overturning the toxic J name stereotype. Julian messaged me on Tumblr in 2014, my senior year of high school. We just clicked. I was continuously struck with wonder: why would someone who has little to gain from forming a friendship with someone they would likely never see take an interest in my life? And why did I want to know them? Thus began the world-building, each breadcrumb of insight he gave me into his life filling in more detail, shading in more edges as we got into regular communication. I built a universe around Julian brick by brick. The more he let me into his life, the more I learned of the setting, the characters, the plot. The internet provided ample data to enrich the subplots and side characters. I would later joke that I was a Julian historian, having read and re-read our texts and dug through his blog archive. It was true in a way, I studied them at a distance. I was quickly learning that it was possible to fall into a rabbit hole of a person the same way Wikipedia can plunge us into the depths of an exciting or twisted topic.

    We reached a turning point during our first in person meeting in November of 2022: 7 years after our first online contact. Passing through New York on their way to Boston, 4 Oats shed their two dimensional skins and inflated to real life characters before my eyes. I’d never felt so instantly at ease with a group of people. It was then I started wondering what invisible strings knit them together,and how my threads could be complementary to theirs. What texture they could bring to the fabric of my life.

    We watched the sun come up together that weekend, and so began the dawn of a different era of friendship. As the avatars rendered themselves three dimensional, my parasocialism with the Oats transitioned to true long-distance friendship. The people I had been imagining as characters took shape, transforming into people with complex histories, dreams, hopes.

    I didn’t realize why this experience impacted me so greatly until I read Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell. In her manifesto, she demonstrates that online worlds are as real as offline ones. She argues against the dismissal of our online selves and interactions, and maintains the validity and realness of our digital interactions. Russell explores the way we’ve adapted to skillfully travel between both realms, and the rich potential for world-building in this multi-dimensional space.[1]  Russell’s text helped me understand how the physical and digital realms are deeply intertwined, and suddenly I had found the language to describe the way I felt zapped into a different world, but one in which I was another thread in an intricate brocade of companionship. I realized what bound the Oats together was deeper than the passage of time. 

    The people I had been imaginiNG AS characters took shape, transforming into people with complex histories, dreams, hopes.

    The societal emphasis on certain categories of love has us fixated with pursuing and prioritizing specific kinds of intimacy. We’re sold the idea that eventually, we ought to outgrow our platonic connections in favor of romantic ones. We often don’t stop to reflect on why that is, and whether or not it’s by design that social acceptance, tax breaks, healthcare or even citizenship are given inequitably to those who achieve the “ideal” monogamous relationship and sometimes forgo their friendships. Both are possible. Julian and his friends were my first examples of what happens when lifelong platonic intimacy is given as much care and attention as other types of connection. Too, the boundless potential for physical, mental, and spiritual growth that exists with the refusal to let go of your friendships. In the past decade, I’ve gone from online chats to real life link ups—from imagined hangs to real life collaborations. I’ve brought the Oats to my favorite streets in New York and my childhood home. I’ve been to Toronto a handful of times myself and have been able to deduce which Drake lyrics ring true and which are as exaggerated as Drake’s faux Caribbean accent.

    More than anything, my friendship with the Oats is newfound evidence that our tendencies towards surfing between the online and offline realms can mimic the multidimensionality between the physical and the spiritual realms. Eventually, I stopped resisting that the mutual magnetism which plucked me from my own life and folded me into their clan was anything short of fated. They found me in my lifelong quest for chosen family.

    [1] Legacy Russell. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2020), 47.

    Pola Pucheta is a first-generation queer creative with a huge head based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work is informed by a passion for familial legacy, introspection, and investigating vulnerability. When she’s not hosting the NEW RECORDING podcast, she works as a documentary professional at Brown Girls Doc Mafia. You can follow her on Instagram, and find her podcast wherever you stream.