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For many around Tampa Bay, the internet is sparking connection

In this age of loneliness, our online worlds offer a particular kind of life raft.
 
Liz Cavey of Tampa, right, and Heather Buford of Clearwater laugh over drinks at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin. Buford moved to Florida from Kentucky to live with Cavey, whom she met a decade ago on Facebook through a Backstreet Boys fan page. The two are now best friends.
Liz Cavey of Tampa, right, and Heather Buford of Clearwater laugh over drinks at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin. Buford moved to Florida from Kentucky to live with Cavey, whom she met a decade ago on Facebook through a Backstreet Boys fan page. The two are now best friends. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 29, 2023|Updated Jan. 3

Julie Adair was in need of a volunteer sniffer.

It was March 2022, and the amateur candle-maker wanted someone to test her work — not just praise her, but critique how far the scent traveled and whether the fragrances were balanced.

“Feedback on what you like and don’t would be very welcome,” she wrote in a Dunedin Facebook group.

Kelli Hart, a single mom and lover of candles, reckoned she had the nose for the job.

Adair, now 42, left the candles outside in a bag to pick up.

Over two months, the women developed an online candor, trading messages about Banana Bread, Pumpkin Spice, Black Coral and Rosemary-Lavender single-wicks — “needs more lavender.”

The women, it turned out, had been living a street apart for almost a decade.

“Like, could throw a rock at each other’s houses but never knew it close,” said Hart, 40.

Hart finally proposed a drink.

Kelli Hart, left, and Julie Adair became friends through a neighborhood Buy/Sell Nothing Facebook group in 2022.
Kelli Hart, left, and Julie Adair became friends through a neighborhood Buy/Sell Nothing Facebook group in 2022. [ Provided by Kelli Hart. ]

Now Adair volunteers for Hart’s daughter’s high school volleyball team. When Adair works late, Hart runs her a warm plate so she doesn’t have to eat frozen pizza. “Sunday Fundays” are spent at a pool where they sip mimosas and snack on truffle fries, pretending to be on vacation.

It’s the kind of friendship that can feel like a rarity in 2023, Hart said, especially for people approaching middle age. Neighbors don’t talk like they used to, she said. The world is quicker-paced, and people tend to focus on themselves — or their phones – instead of small talk.

That she found Julie at all feels like magic.

They have the internet to thank, she said.

The loneliness factor

Americans are lonely.

So lonely that in May the U.S. surgeon general released an advisory declaring the “epidemic of loneliness” a critical public health issue that should be taken as seriously as those posed by tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders.

We’re working more and socializing less, studies show. We’re moving more often for jobs, which makes forming communities more difficult. And, according to polls, we’re not making time for connection.

Researchers approximate it takes 200 hours for a close friendship to grow. Yet, on an average day adults spend just 34 minutes socializing, a 2022 survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics found.

Still, there’s hope to be found in an unlikely place: the internet.

Sure, there are trolls, spammers, scammers and bots. Targeted advertisements and algorithms that melt our online feeds into a homogenous muck.

But every day across Tampa Bay, people are finding and forming relationships online. It’s not a new phenomenon, but in this age of loneliness, our online worlds offer a particular kind of life raft. Comradeship. Sisterhood. Drinking buddies. Friends.

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Sparks fly

When Kelsey Behnke moved to the Tampa area from Chicago in 2020 to care for her niece, she was anticipating some homesickness.

What she didn’t expect was the depression that accompanied it.

It was hard, trading the city where she was born and raised for an unfamiliar place at 26. Uprooting during a pandemic made the transition that much harder. She didn’t know anyone besides her brother and her sister-in-law, and she missed her tightknit girls group.

“I was flying back and forth to Chicago like two or three times a month because I felt so alone,” she said.

Behnke, voted “most outspoken” in high school, had never struggled socially before.

“It’s not like you can go stand on the street corner and shout ‘let’s be friends,’ so where do you even start?” Behnke wondered.

She knew one place that invited shouts into the void.

Brianna Zhynelle (left) and Kelsey Behnke (right) became friends through  a Facebook page. Today, they run Tampa Bay Socialite Babes to help foster community for women across the gulf coast.
Brianna Zhynelle (left) and Kelsey Behnke (right) became friends through a Facebook page. Today, they run Tampa Bay Socialite Babes to help foster community for women across the gulf coast. [ Provided ]

Behnke had been using social media since middle school. She’d grown up with MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger. So in 2021, she turned to Facebook in search of community and ended up building her own.

Today, Behnke, alongside former St. Petersburg resident Brianna Zhynelle, runs a popular Facebook group named “Tampa Bay Socialite Babes.”

“Hey girl hey!! Welcome to the FRIEND-ZONE!” the page description reads. “I want to promote ALL INCLUSIVITY and GENUINE FRIENDSHIPS! Let’s support one another and have fun at this thing we call life!”

The group currently has more than 7,000 members. People post daily, introducing themselves, extending invitations to hang. There are drag brunches, girls’ nights out, meet-ups at local restaurants. Rock climbing and kayaking adventures for the more outdoorsy types, too. Every now and then, a member will post just asking for somebody to talk with. People reply, ready to call.

“I’ve made my best friends through the group,” Behnke said. “There are so many success stories.”

Meet-up groups aren’t novel, but for a generation growing accustomed to more transient lifestyles and work-from-home office norms, people are leaning in.

A Tampa Bay moms group connects more than 25,000 mothers who offer advice, child care and support. Another page for Tampa Bay residents in their 20s and 30s has more than 17,000 members. The list goes on.

Jeyabal Balamuthu, left, with friends he met through a Tampa Bay Facebook page after moving to Florida.
Jeyabal Balamuthu, left, with friends he met through a Tampa Bay Facebook page after moving to Florida. [ Provided by Jeyabal Balamuthu. ]

Meet-up groups are where Jeyabal Balamuthu turned when he arrived in Florida last year.

Originally from India, the 30-year-old came here for work, but his hybrid office was pretty barren.

Lonely and bored, he decided to give Facebook a try. He hit like on a post about a meeting at a shopping center with an offering of outdoor restaurants and added it to his calendar.

About 10 people showed up that night. The majority still hang out today.

They’ve gone ax-throwing, road-tripped around the state and stopped by the Daytona Speedway. A few months back, Balamuthu cooked them all Indian food.

“It’s a very diverse group,” Balamuthu said. “They’re people I wouldn’t have met in any other way.”

It’s not all roses, Balamuthu noted. He’s gone to a few other meet-ups where connections haven’t formed. He’s gotten mean comments in response to posts he’s made and seen others from accounts he suspects are run by bots. Still, the payoff has been worth it, he said.

“Sometimes we get lucky,” he said. “Sometimes we click.”

Expanding worlds

If you had told Leonard Kleinrock that strangers would be using the internet to organize ax-throwing hangouts when he was developing it in the 1960s, he might have said you were mad.

Kleinrock, 89, is one of the founding fathers of the internet. In 1969, his host computer became the first to transmit a message to another using technology he developed. Yet his work, which laid the groundwork for the internet as we know it today, wasn’t conceptualized as a social tool. Rather, he said, it was built to help researchers share and consolidate resources.

“It was a bunch of nerds solving a highly technical problem,” Kleinrock said. “What I missed completely was the idea of social networks. People-to-people connectivity.”

When email emerged in 1972, the future became clearer.

From email came listservs, then forums and internet communities — places where people could connect around specific interests.

Leonard Kleinrock demonstrates how the first internet communication was made with the help of an Interface Message Processor machine at his office at the UCLA Computer Science Department in Los Angeles on March 27, 2007.
Leonard Kleinrock demonstrates how the first internet communication was made with the help of an Interface Message Processor machine at his office at the UCLA Computer Science Department in Los Angeles on March 27, 2007. [ DAMIAN DOVARGANES | AP ]

Today, the value in online friendship is, perhaps, quite similar to what letter-writers found centuries ago: a listening ear.

That can be lifesaving. Research has found that people lacking connection are at an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia.

And, per the U.S. surgeon general, loneliness increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%.

Men are especially vulnerable. A survey by the Survey Center on American Life found that just 21% of men said they received emotional support from a friend within a week, compared to 41% of women. Men were also less likely to have said “I love you” to a friend.

Antiquated social norms that pit vulnerability against masculinity have proven to be a barrier to emotional intimacy for many men. But Anthony Perkins, a 40-year-old Tampa resident, said online friendships helped him open up years ago.

“There are people in gaming that knew I had been diagnosed with depression in, like, 2006, and it was really taboo to admit that,” said Perkins, who began joining online gaming communities in 2004. Players anywhere in the world would talk via headsets while teaming up on quests.

Through hours of virtual adventure, Perkins said he and his teammates talked extensively about their lives. Those friendships allowed him to speak about his mental health in ways he wasn’t yet comfortable doing with nearby peers, he said.

“The second you can flip that switch and tell yourself you’re not an idiot, you’re not dumb, way more people have these same experiences than you could ever believe, it relieves so much of the stress and hurt,” Perkins said.

That trust has translated to the “real world,” too. He now works with somebody he met through gaming a decade ago. And it’s that job that brought him to the Tampa Bay area.

Magic

An online connection is what landed Heather Buford in Florida, too.

It was July 2019, and Buford, now 38, was desperate to get out of her home state of Kentucky. Being a woman of color in a predominantly white, rural town had always weighed on her, but a recent job loss and serious car crash had made the claustrophobia a new type of unbearable.

She made a plea to her Facebook friends, asking if anybody, anywhere beyond the confines of her hometown might have a place where she could stay.

“I know that … we don’t really know each other,” Elizabeth Cavey, 36, wrote to Heather from her Clearwater apartment. “But if you ever want to come to Florida, I’d happily have you!”

Heather Buford holds her phone while displaying a Facebook chat with Liz Cavey in which Cavey invited Buford to move to Florida, at left, while Cavey holds her phone displaying a picture of the duo meeting three of the Backstreet Boys at a 90s Con event.
Heather Buford holds her phone while displaying a Facebook chat with Liz Cavey in which Cavey invited Buford to move to Florida, at left, while Cavey holds her phone displaying a picture of the duo meeting three of the Backstreet Boys at a 90s Con event. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

By Facebook definition, Cavey was a friend — someone Buford had added a decade earlier after liking similar posts on a Backstreet Boys fan page.

By all other definitions, Cavey was a stranger — a stranger who was now offering a lifeline in the form of a home.

Buford took it.

She scheduled a time to visit Cavey in Florida and test the waters. By the end of the week, the two had bonded over their love for music and interests in horoscopes — Cavey’s an earth sign, a nice balance to Buford’s fire.

Like Buford, Cavey had moved to Clearwater to escape a difficult situation. She had left a long-term relationship with little more than her clothes and her dog. She wished she’d had someone there for her. Maybe she could be that for Buford.

The women stayed up late talking, like it was a childhood sleepover.

By the end of the week, they agreed, Buford should move in.

Four years later, the women are no longer roommates, but they’re still best friends.

Heather Buford, left, dresses as '90s actress Hilary Banks while Liz Cavey dresses as international super-sleuth Carmen Sandiego at a 90s Con event.
Heather Buford, left, dresses as '90s actress Hilary Banks while Liz Cavey dresses as international super-sleuth Carmen Sandiego at a 90s Con event. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

This summer, the pair attended 90s Con together. There, they met Howie D of the Backstreet Boys and shared the story of their relationship.

“It changed my life,” Buford said. “An online friendship changed my life.”

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