The Dance

It’s 7PM. The bar is too noisy. The air is too warm. The hard oak seat of the pub-chair has the softened finish of overworn lacquer – humid, spongy.

It’s 7:04. How are we going to recognize each other? I realize I don’t even know a real name. Will we really have anything in common? What if it’s completely awkward?

It’s 7:06. Eyes connect. A flash of half-recognition. “Are you looking for me?” I ask? “I don’t know, am I?” comes the response. The tall, long-haired geek-hippy drops his bag. I wonder if he's as nervous as I am. He takes a seat, flashes a self-conscious smile.

Our careful waltz begins.

I work in isolation, surrounded by pairs. Duplicates of everything: computers, screens, headsets, controllers. But there’s only one chair.

But just because there’s one chair does not mean I work alone, bereft of watercooler chat, workgroups and support. One of my five screens is dedicated to social interaction: 5 email accounts, 6 IM accounts, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, forums.

The tendrils of my community reach out, overlapping and branching in a nervous system of communication: old friends, gamers, writers groups, professional contacts. The interconnections are complex and ever changing. They are dendrites and axons touching and sparking in unexpected ways. My work style involves strengthening the pathways, building links with these people constantly through the course of the 10 or 12 hours I sit at the keyboard, sliding in and out of distraction and productivity. There’s no real pattern to my day, to the network, to the interactions. That’s kind of the point. It's connected chaos. It works.

I never feel alone, or out of touch. Yet half of the people in this ether I have never met. Those I know face to face I see rarely. There’s a constant disconnect with everyone, the only difference is degree. At one end are people who remain identifiable but anonymous - faceless Internet aliases that exist solely to provide competition. Less ethereal are the people I know from walled gardens. With this central core of brethren there's an interaction, an exchange of the only thing of value in a connected yet disassociated world - ideas. Occasionally these faceless companions move one step closer becoming true correspondents, trusted, respected and admired. Friends.

But even here there often remains a final chasm that often remains to be bridged. The terrifying reality of being in the same place at the same time. Face to face, I'm required to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them as human beings.

Tens of thousands of years ago, I slunk with my proto-human ancestors as they approach the valley-bottom, eyeing the tribe across the river with trepidation and excitement: friend or foe? Will they respect our lands? Will we slaughter each other in a bloodbath of gustatory conflict? A month of millennia later, sitting in the Oakland pub, the same fight-or-flight precursors run through my blood, subdued only by super-ego control.

When it comes time for the first date, the more blind I am the better. I have a lifetime of meeting strangers to draw from. I have skills I learned as a toddler well ingrained. There’s no shared history, so there is no place to be but there, in this time, in this place. But when the connections are already soldered – conversations from the past, shared victories and defeats – I have no skills. In many ways it’s like meeting a celebrity or an author: you have this sense that you know the person, but you have none of the subtle cues and that make someone truly familiar.

Within seconds of meeting someone for the first time, I make value judgements. It’s inevitable. My brain classifies the newly presented person just based on how they look, how they talk. Do they shake my hand? Dive in for a hug? Stand off nervously? How do they stand? Do they smile? Do they make eye contact? My perception of who that person *is* is based in large part on those flash perceptions.

When I get to know someone through the Internet, the relationship is entirely cerebral. I know far more about how many of my extended virtual community think than I do about people in my hometown I see every other day. In some communities (such as this one) I literally read dozens of paragraphs a day, on a huge range of topics – communication that would take an entire lunchtime face-to-face, each and every day.

This week is GenCon, my annual face-to-face Hajj. While collecting only a few threads of my network, it remains a focal point of my year, and a time when I’ll be meeting yet more people face-to-face for the first time. Even more stressful, many of these people will be meeting each other for the first time in any context, virtual or otherwise. The streams will cross, and the results can be unpredictable. It’s nerve wracking.

Will the tribes be allies, or will they succumb to their intellectual fight-or-fight reflexes?

Hypothetical bloodbaths aside, I think I've finally learned to relax about the meetings of tribes. While people are different in person than they are online, they are rarely in conflict. While the online world lets people try on new behaviors, I haven’t made a habit of associating with the folks who’s online personas are that of the ingrate and griefer.

We pull the last foam off the bottom of the beer glasses. The group of unknowns has grown in the last few hours. Watches are checked, cell phones consulted. The dance is coming to an end, but nobody wants to be the one to stand up first.

Silence.

I stand up, proffer a hand. "It was great meeting you." I grab my bag, retrieve my glasses from the table. I make eye contact.

"Really excellent."

Comments

There's no slapping or tickling at a S&T, but am I to understand there'll be dancing now?

rabbit wrote:

The streams will cross ...

Pretty sure you're not supposed to do this.

Having been there, this is a genius account of something I've never quite had the words for. It was, let's say, three years before Certis and I actually met, and I remember standing in the Minneapolis Airport waiting for his connecting flight and thinking, quite specifically, "what if I really hate this guy in person?"

And, of course, I did. But, that's beside the point.

The degree of non-facetime interaction these days staggers me, and when you have to cross that threshold it doesn't always work. I get nervous every single time I have to meet someone I've known for years, because I know suddenlt a well established relationship is entirely on the brink.

He takes a seed, flashes a self-conscious smile.

I hope you meant seat, or else this has bizarre consequences like the forward instead of froward congregation.

Rabbit - Great article. I must say it is unbelievably accurate in my eyes of the dances we do every day. Kudos to you.

Elysium wrote:

I get nervous every single time I have to meet someone I've known for years, because I know suddenlt a well established relationship is entirely on the brink.

Truer words have never been written.

Elysium wrote:

The degree of non-facetime interaction these days staggers me, and when you have to cross that threshold it doesn't always work. I get nervous every single time I have to meet someone I've known for years, because I know suddenlt a well established relationship is entirely on the brink.

This is why you never call, isn't it?

/runs off crying

Very nice work, rabbit. Very insightful.

rabbit wrote:

Tens of thousands of years ago, I slunk with my proto-human ancestors as they approach the valley-bottom

Apparently I underestimated his real age. I knew he was old, but I didn't realize he was immortal.

Great job as always.

One thing you didn't mention was the screen name to real name translation. During one of the forum meetings for Quarter to Three, one of the guys had a screen name of "asjunk." There was no way I was going to shout that across the bar.

a bloodbath of gustatory conflict

Delicious!

If I eat Rabbit's heart, then I will gain his strength.

My problems get even more profound. I've got folks who, in business contexts, are still calling me "rabbit."

Thanks for such an accurate expression of the many thoughts that race through my head whenever I'm meeting up with fellow gamer who I've communicated with over the net. Great writing!

Nice one indeed.

Elysium wrote:

Having been there, this is a genius account of something I've never quite had the words for. It was, let's say, three years before Certis and I actually met, and I remember standing in the Minneapolis Airport waiting for his connecting flight and thinking, quite specifically, "what if I really hate this guy in person?"

And, of course, I did. But, that's beside the point.

The degree of non-facetime interaction these days staggers me, and when you have to cross that threshold it doesn't always work. I get nervous every single time I have to meet someone I've known for years, because I know suddenlt a well established relationship is entirely on the brink.

I'm actually working towards a similar thing. Me and a friend that I've now known online for years are planning a visit to Japan somewhere coming spring.. For a month.
I'm certainly not planning on going ill-prepared - not that it's a particular lack of trust - if that were the case, I'd not go at all, but I too know of bad stories of people not ending up being who they say they were, or just not getting along, so preparing for the worst seems the single most important thing to do.
But even if we both are who we say we are and get along fine, ending up meeting in a, to both, foreign country, and planning to stay there for a month, while never having actually met before... I have to admit, that scares the hell out of me..

wordsmythe wrote:
a bloodbath of gustatory conflict

Delicious!

If I eat Rabbit's heart, then I will gain his strength.

There'd be nothing funnier than seeing someone go through the sh*tty job of doing that only to realize it doesn't work at all.

hehe... though it'd be quite terrifying.

but anyways that's a great article that really expresses well what we all go through when comes the time to meet. anyone too, not just business and internet acquaintances.

rabbit wrote:
I've got folks who, in business contexts, are still calling me "rabbit."

You know you should be thankful you didn't choose an alias like ''pumpkin'' or ''honeybear''

''rabbit'' still has some dignity to it. almost ; )

rabbit wrote:

My problems get even more profound. I've got folks who, in business contexts, are still calling me "rabbit."

I don't see what's so bad about that. It's a nickname (that just happens to be your online persona, sure).

By the way, since you were absent from this week's 'cast: What's the deal with "rabbit" as a name?

Will we slaughter each other in a bloodbath of gustatory conflict. A month of millennia later, sitting in the Oakland pub, the same fight-or-flight precursors run through my blood, subdued only by super-ego control.

Hey, I made it into one of Rabbit's articles!

fuzzyslug wrote:

One thing you didn't mention was the screen name to real name translation. During one of the forum meetings for Quarter to Three, one of the guys had a screen name of "asjunk." There was no way I was going to shout that across the bar.

This is one of my biggest issues, really. How do you introduce yourself? What do you call the other guy?

What's amusing is, more often than not, I call Souldaddy by his real name, but my kids prefer his to use his screen name.

That being said, I don't think I'm shouting "fuzzyslug" across any bar, either.

Spaz wrote:

By the way, since you were absent from this week's 'cast: What's the deal with "rabbit" as a name?

While I've been wondering that too, I've just been too scared to ask, really..
It's because of bunny-hopping.... right...?
RIGHT..?!

The answer is too shocking to believe - you'll have to wait until tomorrow's podcast.

FedEx wrote:

I'm actually working towards a similar thing. Me and a friend that I've now known online for years are planning a visit to Japan somewhere coming spring.. For a month.

Talk about brave, talk about walking into the abyss. I did something similar with a friend an acquaintance and an unknown person. To call it an unmitigated disaster overstates the result because things worked out in the end, but up to a certain point it was ugly. We actually ended up splitting into two pairs (my friend and I together) and heading in opposite directions across the Mediterranean Sea.

Spaz wrote:
rabbit wrote:

My problems get even more profound. I've got folks who, in business contexts, are still calling me "rabbit."

I don't see what's so bad about that. It's a nickname (that just happens to be your online persona, sure).

By the way, since you were absent from this week's 'cast: What's the deal with "rabbit" as a name?

rabbit wrote:

The answer is too shocking to believe - you'll have to wait until tomorrow's podcast.

My guess is that he played basketball in high school and now works at a car dealership.

McChuck wrote:

There's no slapping or tickling at a S&T, but am I to understand there'll be dancing now?

rabbit wrote:

The streams will cross ...

Pretty sure you're not supposed to do this.

Only in the bathroom at the communal urinal. Ahhhh true male bonding!!

It took me a couple of readings to grasp the true meaning of the post. Well done sir!! But you knew that.

But here is an interesting question which begs an answer:

If you "know" somebody from an online source, when you meet them in person have you found a large discrepancy in their online personality versus their real life personality?

fuzzyslug wrote:

One thing you didn't mention was the screen name to real name translation. During one of the forum meetings for Quarter to Three, one of the guys had a screen name of "asjunk." There was no way I was going to shout that across the bar.

I had the reverse problem at last year's Minneapolis S&T. I'd introduce myself and people would say something like "Who are you on the forums?"

fuzzyslug wrote:

One thing you didn't mention was the screen name to real name translation. During one of the forum meetings for Quarter to Three, one of the guys had a screen name of "asjunk." There was no way I was going to shout that across the bar.

I can top that one: about two years ago, me and a couple friends decided to meet up with some of our WoW guildmates. There is nothing quite like standing outside a bar and asking a complete stranger "excuse me, are you Pooberry?"

PCman wrote:
McChuck wrote:

There's no slapping or tickling at a S&T, but am I to understand there'll be dancing now?

rabbit wrote:

The streams will cross ...

Pretty sure you're not supposed to do this.

Only in the bathroom at the communal urinal. Ahhhh true male bonding!!

Men do not talk in the restroom. It is a place of solemn business.

cmitts wrote:

We actually ended up splitting into two pairs (my friend and I together) and heading in opposite directions across the Mediterranean Sea.

So when you met on the other side, did you engage in ritual combat to decide the fate of all civilization? Because that would've been great.

PCman wrote:

If you "know" somebody from an online source, when you meet them in person have you found a large discrepancy in their online personality versus their real life personality?

The two guys I've met exclusively through the site were both surprisingly cool. Much more so than you would expect from a site about video games. Based on that alone, S&T's are always highly recommended.

cmitts wrote:
FeddEx wrote:

I'm actually working towards a similar thing. Me and a friend that I've now known online for years are planning a visit to Japan somewhere coming spring.. For a month.

Talk about brave, talk about walking into the abyss. I did something similar with a friend an acquaintance and an unknown person. To call it an unmitigated disaster overstates the result because things worked out in the end, but up to a certain point it was ugly. We actually ended up splitting into two pairs (my friend and I together) and heading in opposite directions across the Mediterranean Sea.

Heheh, yeah I can see how that can be trouble. I don't think I'd do it if there were more unknown factors either.
The mediterranian is one thing.. Japanese sea... er...

buzzvang wrote:

The two guys I've met exclusively through the site were both surprisingly cool. Much more so than you would expect from a site about video games. Based on that alone, S&T's are always highly recommended.

Same here - I met 5 people in total, and save from some (including me) tending to be a bit more shy in person, it's all good so far.

I have a bad habit meeting new people of trying to fill the silence without having much to say.

Edit: I should note that when I meet people I know exclusively online in meatspace I actually keep them mentally separated; there's the people I'm typing with and the people I've met with a tenuous line linking the two that tells me, mentally, that if I mention something that happened in with [person]WEB then [person]REAL will know of it. It takes a couple of meetings before I just have one person in my mind.

Being 15 (which I feel like I mention every other comment) I haven't met anyone I've known online. I used to have quite a few online friends, until Valve, for some reason that I still don't know, shut down my old steam account. Since then I haven't really bothered again.

A LONG time ago me and my Ex-Girlfriend would play Ultima Online together. We were both in the same guild with some awesome people. So we all decided to meet at one of their homes. So we hopped on a bus and headed to Mt. Vernon, IL. They were all the same awesome people in person that we knew and loved. Except for 1 guy who came from Ohio to meet everyone. I caught him sleeping with my girlfriend... That was a long cold bus ride home... And needless to say, I went "red" in Ultima Online everytime I saw him, or her. I haven't met any "friends" from online since...

McChuck wrote:

There's no slapping or tickling at a S&T, but am I to understand there'll be dancing now?

There has been slapping, tickling, and dancing at several S&T's, and I am pretty sure you have been the central part of most of it. There's a reason they call you Jazz Hands... several reasons, actually.