“You still haven’t met?”
My cheeks flush at the question, and I feel a combination of frustration and shame not dissimilar to when someone questions why I’m still masking, avoiding indoor gatherings, and taking other precautions to dodge reinfection.
The question is flawed though, because, of course, Angela M. Vázquez and I have met. We first met three years ago when she joined an online long Covid support group I’d started on Slack. We met again when she logged on to Google Meet to discuss becoming one of the group’s first moderators, and again when I interviewed her and her partner on Zoom for an article about caregiving. We met on video calls and in Google documents where we wrote guidelines for our online support group. As our friendship blossomed, we met in text message threads and on phone calls—often offering each other a kind of care that had disappeared from my “IRL” life. But, no, Angela and I still haven’t met “in person.”
In the mid-1990s, when the internet was first going mainstream, some noted that it offered safer sex options during a time of high HIV transmission. More recently, cyberintimacy has proved to be a crucial lifeline throughout the pandemic—especially for immunocompromised and other “high risk” communities, who have been increasingly marginalized from mainstream society as a result of the push to “return to normal.” Providing more avenues for cyberintimacy can help improve access to intimacy for these communities, while helping us all acknowledge the unique benefits of virtual relationships. Yet relationship apps often push users to meet in person, contributing to the idea that virtual connection is always inferior to the connections we forge in the physical presence of one another.
When the pandemic first began, many events and offerings became newly accessible, and relationship apps and social media sites exploded with activity. “All of a sudden, people were acting how I had to act prepandemic,” says Liz Weaver, a neuroscientist interested in interdisciplinary policy, health equity, and science communication, who lives with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) and describes herself as “homebound.” For Weaver, 2020 brought her “easiest dating days.” She spent most of the first two years of the pandemic in an entirely virtual romantic relationship with someone she met in a chronic illness support group. The two women used FaceTime and texting to exchange intimacies, but Weaver says that social media also played a significant role. “When you’re sharing … memes and TikToks and things, that is a playful intimacy,” she says.
The widespread focus on virtual spaces, however, was short-lived. “High risk” communities have since been left with few options and little support. Our community is experiencing a mental health crisis as we struggle to stay socially connected. “Of all the things that I’ve been able to transcend with ME/CFS, losing connection is the most tragic,” says Weaver.
I can’t overstate how much joy and meaning I’ve found in virtual spaces over the past three years. Sometimes I describe the experience of entering my long Covid support group as akin to leaving a dark, empty room for a raucous party. Reclining in bed and clicking the small Slack icon on the bottom of my screen, I’d feel the thrill of waiting outside a best friend’s door. The friends, mentors, and collaborators I met in this space came from all over the world, and as Rasha Abdulhadi, a writer and community technologist disabled by long Covid, points out, this ability to connect across time zones “makes it possible to have company through chronic illness insomnia and support other organizers through late night vigils.”
Virtual hubs like these have also fostered more macro-level collective care and movement-building. The support group I started incubated a global long Covid advocacy movement, which has mostly taken place online. On Zoom, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Signal, people have lobbied world health leaders, advocated for better mitigation efforts, and raised awareness about resources. “It feels urgent to me to use as many of these methods of connecting and checking in … as possible,” Abdulhadi says.
Spaces that allow for cyberintimacy provide real value, but technology companies can do more to secure and ensure avenues to these spaces. This might start with creating new communities specifically focused on facilitating cyberintimacy. Many “high risk” individuals I speak with expressed longing for online spaces where they don’t have to explain their desire for predominantly virtual contact. Some mentioned trying dating apps for disabled people, but say these sites have smaller user bases and often still encourage “in person” engagement. Tech companies can also consider supporting existing communities, like the support group Angela and I met in, which—like other pandemic crisis-response initiatives—is struggling to sustain itself.
Technology companies should also consider creating features on existing apps to foster more long-term virtual engagement. The dating app Feeld offers virtual “cores” meant to facilitate virtual relationships and allow users to search without a designated location. Feeld CEO Ana Kirovasays says that while 2020 was “the catalyst” for developing this feature, engagement has remained “very consistent,” with a 35 percent growth in users since the “staying at home core” was launched.
Feeld’s virtual “core” options may provide a useful blueprint for other technology companies, but when I asked Kirova about the potential to expand these options, she said Feeld’s immediate focus is shifting “toward in-person experiences.” This shift, of course, reflects a larger societal push, which has ironically left many “high risk” individuals in need of options like the virtual “cores.”
In addition to creating non-location-based ways to search, existing relationship apps might consider building badges and filters for users who wish to connect with people in their area but want to signal that they are looking for initially or predominantly virtual relationships. (Virtual local connections can be important for establishing care networks, recommending local vendors, and allowing for the possibility of eventual in-person engagement if circumstances change.) Weaver and others spoke about difficulties conveying the request to put off in-person meetings to potential connections, who were impatient or unfamiliar with why it would be desirable. Jen Hecht, cofounder and director of Building Healthy Online Communities, says clear profile options and features are helpful for users and have aided communication about HIV on dating apps. “When you create a field that allows folks to put that information in, it becomes normalized and more people feel comfortable entering [it],” she explains. Covid-19 caution and cyberintimacy aren’t concepts that can be perfectly conveyed via badges or filters, but apps that create such features can help destigmatize desires for cyberintimacy and conversations around access needs.
Creating more avenues for cyberintimacy also requires tech companies to do more to secure the spaces in which these relationships take place. Hecht’s group, in coordination with Yale researchers, has created a list of recommendations meant to improve user safety and well-being. The suggestions include establishing methods of user verification; providing users with free, unlimited blocks; and upgrading mechanisms for reporting harassment. Hecht also thinks apps can do a better job educating users about privacy. She recommends apps add more easily understood privacy prompts, as the current lengthy privacy agreements found on most apps can be difficult to parse. Tech companies might also consider investing in cybersecurity add-ons that are more accessible for disabled users, although significant policy change is needed to truly secure these platforms. “Without safety, there really is not intimacy,” says Weaver.
Finally, a greater investment in cyberintimacy also requires a cultural shift toward recognizing cyberintimacy as meaningful in and of itself. This must start with the widespread “wellness” advice promoted on the very apps we go to for social connection. “The advice you get from mental health people is to get offline, but it doesn’t apply,” says Weaver. “You end up feeling almost guilty for connecting.” Even the term “IRL” serves to downgrade our online experiences. If these connections aren’t taking place “in real life,” do they even exist? Abdulhadi calls this “concern-trolling about needing to meet in-person to secure our wellness,” and says it’s predicated on the notion that there is a single standard of health or wellness. They reject it, and I agree. I’ve long felt that a more expansive definition of wellness would make it easier to feel well.
A greater acceptance of the benefits of cyberintimacy can help fuel action into securing virtual spaces and acknowledging what we stand to lose when they fail us, rather than blaming ourselves for participating in the first place. “We build up a kind of stock … in these digital platforms in a way that can be erased,” Weaver says. She’s right, but building connections around physical spaces also doesn’t insulate us from destruction. When the pandemic first hit, my New York City social network evaporated, and the wellness center where I’d worked and socialized almost daily shuttered. This sort of thing happens often: Weaver notes that lesbian bars have also been slowly disappearing.
About two years after we first met in the support group, I moved across the country to a neighborhood 15 minutes away from Angela. When storm clouds descend from the mountains around us and I know our symptoms are flaring, I text her: 🌩️‼️🤯. On good days, she sends me photos of the succulents she’s repotting, and when I post an Instagram photo of the ones she’s been coaching me on, her red heart means more. I think we may meet “in-person” this spring, but I know it’s not necessary to affirm our intimacy. We’re close, and we have been for a while now.