Most of us were taught as children that it’s not nice to show off. If you got a mega Christmas present or a trip to Disneyland, you weren’t supposed to go around shouting about it. It was a good rule which we all promptly forgot when Instagram was invented.
Bragging was the internet’s lifeblood in the mid 2010s. Your boyfriend got you nice Christmas presents? Tag Michael Kors. Good holiday? A sunset shot captioned: “Not the worst way to spend a Monday”. New relationships meant pictures of you kissing “this one <3”, a promotion meant a lengthy post on LinkedIn about your passion and drive, parenting meant sharing an album of your child who wanted to go as Martin Chuzzlewit for Year 3 Book Day while all the other kids wanted to be Elsa from Frozen.
I’m about to be a 31-year-old divorced single parent, I live in a moderately unattractive 1960s house and I buy all of my clothes from Zara. Most of the classic internet boasts really aren’t on the cards for me. But the one boast I do have just happens to be the one which remains social acceptable: the friend brag. And if I’m honest, I do get a smug thrill from the landscape of my friendships – my tight knit, bitchy, brilliant university friends, my collection of stand alone best mates I can call whenever I want to lose two hours, even the recent addition of some (shock horror) male friends.
I never feel more like I have my life together than when a load of funny, clever, slightly drunk people are sitting around my kitchen table eating and laughing. And whenever that happens, which is quite a lot, I slather it over the internet.
In the 2010s, as we slowly realised what an artifice social media is (I know, I know, not a revolutionary thought there), the brag, even the humble brag, became unpopular. These days it’s fashionable to be relatable while you show off a bit. Mention a row on the way to pick up the hire car alongside a picture of the sunset, talk about a tantrum next to a photo of your child’s artwork, acknowledge some major help from your families in the Instagram story where you pick up the keys to your new house.
Perhaps it’s because of the economic situation, or just fatigue at the falseness of watching other people’s highlights reels, but posting about your perfect life just isn’t cool anymore. In fact, pretty much the only thing that it’s still common – or even socially acceptable – to boast about, is your friendship group.
The perfect friendship group is the last true status symbol – one of the few things that we still feel able to boast about without compunction. But – given that finding really great female friends is just as hard to achieve and just as aspirational as a glittering career or a partner who writes poetry and brings you coffee every morning – when we post about our friendships, those posts should also come with a caveat.
Last summer, new to South West London, I went to a local playgroup with my daughter, on a friend making mission. When I tried to join in with a group of mums, they looked at me like I was a local loon, rather than another person with a child the same age as theirs. And I will admit, I was a little bit outraged. How could they not want to get to know me? I’m fun, I’m funny, I have a cool job. I met Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in ONE NIGHT. But in mumland none of that seemed to matter, and it sent me into a total tailspin.
My lack of a close knit group of local mums to spend all day drinking lattes and laughing with made me feel like a Big Fat Failure. Suddenly I understood the enormous anxiety around female friendship, and how “Friendship Self Help” is becoming the next big genre of non-fiction.
Journalist Elizabeth Day has written a book titled Friendaholic (published this week), which serves as a guide to how to manage friendships. We know that what we spend our money on is the best indicator of what we value, and the sudden appearance of books about friendship just goes to prove how much we all seem to care about it. Once upon a time the Bridget Joneses of the world would read books about how to get a boyfriend. Now we’re willing to throw money at the problem of friendship.
It makes perfect sense – friendships are just as nourishing as relationships, just as important to our quality of life, and arguably harder to manage because we don’t have the same culture of consideration and assessment which we do for romantic relationships.
But the truth is that no book can teach you how to have friends, and having lots of good mates is as much a matter of luck as anything else. And, of course, as with all the things we see on the internet, the truth of having said friends is more nuanced than the pictures. Sure, I could cast a moderately compelling sitcom based on my friendships, but I also fall out with them intermittently, get anxious when they don’t reply to my messages, worry that they’ll forget my birthday and sometimes wonder if they like me as much as I love them.
Perfect, tight knit friendship groups without a moment of stress or strain only actually exist in sitcoms – and it’s time we properly accepted that too.
Rebecca Reid is an author and journalist