After my walk this weekend, I had some random thoughts about friendship and the role the internet plays in connecting people together in various ways, from WhatsApp to Facebook.
There are many ways of communicating via the internet and they have emerged for various reasons. There is the obvious need for connection that human beings have and the internet allows us to connect to everyone from strangers to acquaintances to friends. I wondered: how did we connect with others before Myspace, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Meetup, TikTok, WhatsApp, Zoom, and Teams? In particular, I was thinking about how people use the internet to maintain relationships and find new friends.
One way people found new friends in the past was through the local community: churches, social clubs, work, school, college, and local events. However, society has changed. For example, the role of the church has diminished in some places. Also, more people now live away from where they were brought up; when we move to another town, we end up, at least initially, with fewer friends.
Moving away from home was rarer 100 years ago. Now, people move not only within their own country but to other countries too. This increasing movement has been coupled with more people living on their own and the increase in social isolation. This is a complicated subject and I’m not going to even try to work out the causal relationship between these events. But in this context — where social structures are changing — it’s easy to see why people would want new ways of connecting with others when the old ways are no longer available.
The various internet communication channels are problematic in some ways but they can help us cope with modern life. They can help if we are socially isolated or fill the void produced when we move to a new location. They can be a way of keeping in touch with friends and family, and meeting new people.
Although there is a place for internet communication via the likes of Facebook and Zoom — which the pandemic made abundantly clear — I have always preferred face-to-face interaction. This is not true for everyone: some people prefer to communicate via WhatsApp or other internet channels.
It’s possible that not everyone has become comfortable with internet communication because it’s relatively new. Perhaps in the future, most interactions will be via the internet and all relationships will be formed by communicating via the internet.
Of the main social media websites, meetup.com is probably the least known. Regularly, I mention it to people and most haven’t heard of it. It’s barely advertised and those who know of it usually hear about it through word-of-mouth. That’s a shame because it’s different from the other websites I’ve mentioned. Most importantly, you meet new people — face-to-face!
Meetup allows anyone to create groups for whatever interests them. For example, there are groups for hiking, eating out, learning languages, playing sports, watching foreign language films, and almost anything else you can think of. Although the group organiser pays Meetup, it’s usually free to join a group; sometimes there’s a fee to attend an event.
Whilst good in theory, Meetup is only as good as the groups that are available near you. In large cities, like London, there are thousands of groups. In smaller towns, there may not be so many. But if you find yourself in a new town or just want to meet new people, looking at Meetup can be a good way of quickly finding people with similar interests to yours.
I have been a member of Meetup for about ten years and have joined (and left) many groups. I like it that I can meet people face-to-face and do activities I enjoy with other people. For example, although I like hiking on my own or with a friend, I sometimes like hiking in a bigger group and letting someone else do the organising and map-reading. Meetup lets me do that. The hiking groups I’m a member of all organise day hikes but some also organise longer trips to other parts of the UK or abroad. Many of the places that I’ve been to have been via Meetup groups with other like-minded travellers and hikers. Meetup has been my biggest source of genuine new friends, some of whom I’ve now known for years.
One of the first hiking groups I joined was Go London. I hiked regularly with them before the pandemic and have started going with them again. This weekend, there was a relatively local hike.
We walked along Chess Valley, starting at Amersham and finishing at Rickmansworth. Both are outside London but conveniently on the London Underground. It was about a 50 minutes journey from Central London to Amersham.
The 13K walk itself is slightly undulating and easy going. After the recent heatwave in London, I welcomed the cooler temperatures we had. It was good weather for a day hike. I’ve walked here before but I don’t remember it looking so good. Rather perversely, the lack of rain may have improved how the landscape looks!
After the walk, we went to a pub in Rickmansworth and sat outside in the garden, some of us ordering food. The return journey seemed quicker than the outward one, as it often does, and before I knew it, I was at home reflecting on a very enjoyable day doing something simple (walking, talking, drinking, eating) with friendly strangers.