THE THANKSGIVING ISSUE
The week of November 22, 2015

When online friends finally meet IRL

By Selena Larson

We met outside the train station, and he grabbed my bag. He took me to drinks and dinner. I wondered if he was as nervous about befriending a stranger as I was—that familiar awkwardness that comes with trying to live up to your online persona or the preconceived notions the other person has of you, based on bad Twitter jokes and Instagram photos. Eventually we stayed up until 4am, laughing, drinking wine, and realizing we were both better than either of us imagined from 140-character snippets of comedy and randomness.

To me, it’s second nature to alert Internet friends when I’ll have the opportunity to meet them in person. This time, I wound up on an unplanned 24-hour layover in Boston and naturally wanted to connect with the one person I had shared inside jokes with for over a year and yet had never seen in the flesh.

Perhaps some people might think it stupid to put so much trust in someone they’ve only met on the Internet via favorites and Twitter direct messages, but I think it’s possible to establish friendships and connections through words and pixels, and often they become stronger than those bonds made after real-life handshakes.

Since moving to San Francisco three years ago, many of my closest friendships have begun online. As someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, and more specifically Twitter, the more I tweet about my life, work, and interests, the more I connect with similar people, simply by sharing 140 characters of, frequently, a lot of nonsense.

Yes, someone could pretend on Twitter, and there are plenty of reasons to be wary about meeting people you only know online. The platform is a hotbed for harassment, especially toward women, and it’s important to be vigilant while establishing an online relationship, as much as meeting a blind date or a potential mate you met on Tinder.

It’s a dice roll each time you meet someone, wondering if your expectations were accurate.

The reality is that many of us are pretending. And only the people comfortable with being vulnerable and open with potential friendships are the people worth knowing anyway. (Plus, it helps if your friends are friends with them already.)

The thing about only knowing a person through Twitter is you’re judging someone worthy of your time based on a stream of consciousness and news articles that somehow attracts you to them. It’s impossible to build a comprehensive personality based on tweets or publicly available information—our online interactions barely scratch the surface of the depth of our humanity, conscience, beliefs, and individuality.

It’s a dice roll each time you meet someone, wondering if your expectations were accurate.

I often struggle with making friends in real life. It’s difficult to form new platonic relationships as an adult, with people who would be worthy of a lasting friendship. So while it might seem strange to those who don’t live their lives in constant proximity to the Internet, sometimes meeting friends online is a better precursor to real friendship. We do it with partners, why not with friends?

Since moving to San Francisco three years ago, many of my closest friendships have begun online.

According to Pew Research, online friendships might be more common than people think, especially with young people. A recent study shows that 57 percent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 have made a new friend online, and 29 percent have made more than five new friends. More often than not, however, those relationships remain online: Just 20 percent of teens meet their online friends IRL.

After meeting Chris, something happened that I think can only happen when you meet someone for the first time after knowing them exclusively like a flip-book animation, with a new illustration added with each new tweet. In describing myself in earnestness beyond the shallow platitudes, I was reminded of who I really was. Yes, I am a technology reporter with bad jokes, but he already knew that. He didn’t know that I also write a lot of other things, and the apathetic, snarky human I often become on Twitter did not necessarily define every bit of my identity.

Once you’ve established an online relationship, there’s the delicate dance of who slides into DMs first without feeling totally silly or like you’re hitting on a stranger. But inevitably, each time online correspondence turns into an offline interaction, by the time you’ve ordered drinks or coffee, you realize that discomfiting feeling of being alone in a world of a few hundred million active users is not unique to any one individual.

The identities most of us present on Twitter and Instagram and other public platforms can be cautiously manufactured, often pseudonymous, and not accurately represent the Whole Person.

Twitter and other public discourse have the power not only to build friendships and relationships, but enact change. It was through the humanity discovered on Twitter and the arguments, debates, and ideals shared through 140-character messages that prompted and led to Megan Phelps-Roper, the former Twitter spokesperson for the Westboro Baptist Church tasked with spewing hatred online, eventually leaving the church.

Despite the noise, and anger, and politicking, Twitter can also be a haven for those of us who rely on the Internet to provide for us jobs, page views, and life support. And in between the snark and sincerity, there are reminders that behind each avatar is a human being, someone experiencing emotions, complexities, and ups and downs in a world that exists offline.

Illustration by J. Longo