Ah, the ol’ twinge of butterflies. It’s time once again to put my money where my mouth is and meet “internet friends” in a real-life setting. I took pause before entering Teneman's castle at PenCon; I mean, spending four days with 60-some-odd people I've never met before is a pretty mind-boggling situation. Sure, it could be great. Or they could have set up a highly-efficient organ-harvesting assembly line in the basement.
… Well, disassembly line, to be precise.
I get it. Despite being an extroverted person by nature, I tend toward nervousness in these situations too. Will we all get along? Will there be any long, awkward pauses? Will I still have all of my internal organs safely tucked away inside my body at the end of the day?
I find myself looking for rules for approaching situations like this — your grandmother may call such rules etiquette — but there aren't many codified rules for finally putting a face with a name when it comes to meeting those met online. It’s a bit of a brave new world of social interaction, and to this point the rules don’t seem to yet be firmly established.
It’s not as though this is the first opportunity people have ever had to meet in an unusual social setting. Our great-grandparents had the opportunity to meet a pen pal, experience a blind date, introduce a new friend to a group, or go off to a conference, or revival tent, or grange hall dance or whatever they did. But this whole internet persona thing throws a wrench into those traditional settings. This is the first that is a group setting where all parties are partially, and likely incorrectly, known.
We aren’t all unknown as we meet in these situations, but neither are we really known. People don’t act in real life like they do on the internet, of course — that's axiomatic. You can point to John Gabriel's now-famous theory, or the mere absence of instantaneous visual feedback via the other person's facial expression, but regardless people act differently during online interactions. You only know the side of themselves they’ve chosen to display in forums or chat rooms. At the very least, I’ve never seen someone whip out a funny captioned picture of a cat in the middle of an actual conversation.
I think ultimately this is why real-world internet meetups can feel so awkward at times. It’s not that you know very little about someone, because if that’s the case your mind still allows them to fill in the gaps themselves. With prolific internet commenters and chatters, however, your mind tends to fill in their whole lives through the tiny little snippets they choose to show you.
It’s like seeing someone wearing a UtiliKilt. There are plenty of possible scenarios in which someone may find themselves wearing that strange combination of heritage and … um, functionality, but your brain can create this whole scenario. Could be it’s a positive scenario, but the point is that you don’t know. Maybe he just really needs that cross-breeze. Maybe it was a gift from an awkward relative, and he’s going to be seeing them later in the day — but are you going to intuit that from the little snippet you see? Unlikely.
Our brains fill in the gaps, and it creates a cognitive dissonance that can seem odd when meeting people in real life. Your brain has to reconcile what you “know” of someone from the internet with what your own eyes see in front of you.
You mean you aren’t some brain-melting Lovecraftian horror? You don’t pilot an actual roflcopter? You don’t have a scantily-clad elf sidekick? … Wait, you’re not a girl?
Color me surprised.
We've all been taught to remember that there’s an actual person on the other side of that magnetic ink. Though a helpful reminder to be kind, it shows a naïveté about how human interaction works. It’s true that there’s another person on the other side of the screen, but it’s unlikely they are just being themselves, even if the shift is subconscious on their part. We perform our identities, and that performance is even more persuasive when nobody can see our face.
I struggle with this question as well. How much of the diminutive and tyrannical Minarchist do I want to show, versus how much Andy? Are these the kind of people to whom I want to show a more real, natural side? Do I want to allow that sort of vulnerability?
We have managed to cobble together some semblance of order in our internet interactions in this little corner of the internet. We learn each other’s personas and the best ways to interact with them — or, in some cases, the best ways to push their buttons. So how do we react when we meet someone in real life who is ostensibly the same, but in reality is different — sometimes remarkably so?
The only answer I’ve managed to come up with at this point is trial-and-error. In that vein, a little bit of nervousness seems quite natural. If there’s one thing I hope to get across it’s that it’s okay to feel that way, but don’t let it deter you from actually getting out there and meeting other people in real life. You’ll probably like them a lot more in person! I have yet to meet someone in person and like them less than I do online. (Caveat: I have not met Quintin_Stone in person.)
It really is undiscovered country, and we are the ones riding our covered wagons into the red sunset in search of new and better pastures. Without any established social code, this really does seem to be the only way to go about things. We denizens of the internet are the settlers of the Wild West, staking out our claims in whatever way we best see fit.
But the reward is worth the risk. As I relax at home after a board-game-filled weekend with these “internet” friends, I take inventory: two kidneys, two lungs, a liver, a stomach full of tasty hot chicken. Safely tucked in bed, not sold to slavers (always a bonus). I even managed to learn more about those people with whom I often trade meme-ridden barbs across the TCP/IP frontier; to no longer consider them “internet” friends. Just … friends.