It was nearly 1 a.m., and I was losing a game of online chess. I hadn’t lost a chess game against a real person for as long as I could remember, but then again, I’d gone years without so much as touching a chessboard — actual or pixelated. This would be the match that reignited my passion.
My opponent was a 21-year-old (I was then 24) I’d met in a Twitter group chat. The chat was initially themed around discussing the works of the brilliant yet troubled, late author David Foster Wallace, but we’d moved past that. Now we were in round three of an informal chess tournament I’d organized. I was undefeated so far, but as I got methodically trounced, I constantly reassured myself that “it doesn’t really matter” — just as Wallace described himself doing when he lost to a precocious 9-year-old on the Zenith cruise ship (which he recounted in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”).
Our Twitter group coalesced in November 2020. I’ve been an avid reader and rereader of Wallace since 2018 and jumped at the opportunity to join a group dedicated to discussing his work. I expected a book club of sorts — one that would keep me entertained for a couple of weeks and then fizzle out.
What I didn’t predict was that I’d find a small community of friends I’d grow to care for despite our main mode of contact being digital messaging. A community whose intricate lives I’d come to know in detail, who would become a social haven for me in a socially isolated time (even as an introvert, I had grown bored and claustrophobic), and with whom I would still be in regular, daily contact even now, almost two years later.
The 20 core members, most from the East Coast but some located as far away as Iceland, exhausted the Wallace topic quickly, but instead of straying away, we began to discuss other things. We made a playlist of all our favorite songs and found that our musical tastes, much like our literary tastes, overlapped immensely. We recommended books to each other — I was even persuaded to go out and buy Lucy Ellmann’s thousand-page, one-sentence tome Ducks, Newburyport. We created a server on the Discord gaming platform and added our own inside jokes and personalized memes. We stayed up late talking and streaming movies. Watching David Lynch’s Inland Empire, we mused about what Wallace, an avid fan of Lynch’s work, would have thought of the newest season of Twin Peaks.
Two members who live near each other went out on a date and are still together, months later. Someone created a line of funny merchandise based on an inside joke, and I bought one of the hoodies. When my father saw me wearing it at dinner one night and asked me where I’d gotten it, he commented that the David Foster Wallace group “sounds like a cult.”
It isn’t, but it is a phenomenon that couldn’t have happened in the Before Times. We thrived off our mutual solitude. On weekends, when going to bars or house parties was not advisable, social interaction was just a few clicks away. Now, despite the effort many people are making to “return to normal,” a.k.a. in-person living, the chat remains active no matter the season — because we were never in the same place physically to begin with.
Much has been said about the information age and its potential to dampen social existence. Some of this criticism was levied by Wallace himself, who presciently predicted the rise and fall of video chatting in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, with its downfall being that non-face-to-face contact “allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you to not have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her.” Here, Mr. Wallace, is where you and I part ways.
Hannah Smart is a Brookline resident and Emerson College fiction MFA student. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.