Let's Just Be {Internet} Friends

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.

Comments

Minarchist wrote:

tl;dr: Mikey likes meeting people, and he hates everything!

I didn't mean to suggest they were the same thing. It was just attempting to share a similar experience for me. I didn't know anyone on the team at my first practice in October. I had seen some of their faces in classes or on campus but knew nothing about them. I only knew my roommate and his friends before I got involved in that club. Within the Frisbee club, we formed sub-cliques based on dorms or majors, and it grew into a broader community by the end of my second semester.

We also had silly and sport-irrelevant nicknames like:
McLovin
Grimer
Gag Reflex
Village Idiot
Tuberculosis
Father Nelson
Grandpa

I feel like I'm developing similar friendships with the GWJ community. I had met a handful of the Boston GWJ-crew a few times before PAX and we gravitated together when we first arrived on Friday. It helped to have that clique to fall back on when I was uncomfortable or felt intimidated by so many new faces. I grew more comfortable as I recognized forum names and could put faces to them.

DoogieMac's icon and face matched well to me and he's in competition for nicest person I met*. I don't think we had talked much if at all on the forum, but a career discussion jogged my memory and I felt like we got along swimmingly. SocialChameleon's fierce care-bear icon sparked familiarity for me and he was a pleasure to chat with at Tamo.

Conversely, I was pretty nervous around the podcast hosts through the event, despite running into Cory, Shawn, Sean, and Julian every day. Maybe it's because I knew what they looked like already and they're still celebrities in my head. After the panel, I talked to Pyroman before I knew his name and I felt like I carried myself much better there.

I also met Jeff Green when he wasn't swamped on Friday morning, and felt like I did a good job getting out of his way after telling him that I appreciated his work. Trying to talk to Sydnee and Justin McElroy was more difficult; Justin has a lot of fans. Sydnee was gracious and fun to talk to. I hope she had fun at PAX.

*You all won. This community has no losers in the friendliness competition. DoogieMac was in the upper quartile of our skewed bell-curve though.

Squee9 wrote:

But yeah it's time for me to meet some of you.

You bastard, have you already forgotten Escapist Expo?

I first met folks from an online forum when I was in high school. I was a part of the Megatokyo forums, particularly the gaming subforum, and a bunch of us had a meet-up my first year at the con and just had a blast talking and hanging with each other. In fact, the second year I went we basically spent an entire Saturday sitting outside of a Burger King talking, missing almost the entire convention because we just had more fun hanging with each other.

College it happened again. Before I got to RIT I joined the gaming club's online forum, got to interact with a few of the guys, and then got to meet them in person.

In both of those instances there was a slight nervousness. It's always startling, as you said Minarchist, when you see someone's face and it's like "Whoa, that's what they look and sound like?" But for the most part it's something you get used to. Hell, when I first met BNice this weekend I had a laugh about it. "You're not some deep-voiced bearded man at all!", or something to that effect.

But as I wrote in the PAX thread, GWJ did introduce something new to be nervous about. There is a very different commaradery here than I've seen in other forums. I'm not quite sure how to describe it, honestly, but there's something slightly different. As a result I felt like an outsider in comparison because I haven't been around long. But this year that was all put to rest.

Maybe I'm just more used to it, but to me meeting someone online is like meeting a friend you haven't seen for several years. There's just a gap that is missing, and now that you've met up there's a "now what?". There's no forum with topics laid out before you, so you have to think of them yourself. This usually results in small talk.

It's what you do with that small talk that changes things.

As for personalities, I think the me on the forum is still me, just the me that has the time to properly organize their thoughts and construct a sentence. There's no "um, uh, but-um" going on because I can pause, think, then continue typing. My fingers move more slowly than my lips and tongue, so the words are better paced.

But it is still me speaking my mind. I just am limited in how much of me I can present. To a lot of people that meet me in real life first, they describe me based on the volume of my voice, the sound effects I make, the facial expressions and other physical body language, and when it comes to the things I discuss there will always be that level of excitement I clearly have in my eyes and the pitch of my voice, or when it comes to my sense of humor it's always the quick and savage or sarcastic delivery or something. These are things that cannot be communicated.

This doesn't make me different on the Internet, it just means these things are absent.

It's better to view a forum as a window into someone's more or less intellectual thoughts, I'd say. You get a chance to see what someone is like when they are able to pace their thought process. Meeting in person gets you a piece of the full experience, but like all things you're still not getting it all.

I'd like to think those who met me and got to talk to me got a more complete idea of me, and that it coincides with the me on the forum rather than seeming different.

Thin_J wrote:

Oh look, another reminder I missed Pencon.

I knew there was a reason I bought a bottle of Glenlivet to try out.

So stop missing them.

oilypenguin wrote:

Ugh. Who wants to meet someone from the internet?

No good can come of it, I can assure you of that.

It's weird at times. At my first Pencon I knew who Brian was by sight. Also by process of elimination. At the hotel-of-no-name there was a guy at the check-in counter. He was an unattended adult male who didn't have any luggage with him. Boom! Goodjer.

Jonman wrote:

Moral of the story - any traumatic experience can be sufficiently lubricated with decent scotch.

Words to live by.

Oily was mean to me when I first met him. Then I bought him a beer. Oily was nice to me after I bought him a beer.

Conclusion: buy people beer and they will be your friends.

What I got from this article is that Minarchist thought I was a woman...

shoptroll wrote:

Protip: I don't look anything like my avatar. Great article by the way.

I *wish* I looked as awesome as my avatar!
Great article indeed!!
I too, have a reticence to use "internet friends", because it still has this "not real" implication (which is totally unfounded, but to some people, that's just how it comes across). And I also have a better memory for handles than I do for names. Because handles just have a longer history, I'm more familiar with them.
Couldn't make it to PAX this year, but I have high hopes for 2014...

I just say people I know. I know these people. I've never used online or anything. When I'm here, at GWJ, I know you. I've seen pictures of you. I've seen pictures of your newborns. I've met people who have met you in person (and by you I mean whoever).

nel e nel wrote:

My internet friendship with SallyNasty taught me that platonic love can exist between a man and a woman.

So are you a woman, or did he literally teach you that?
/so confused

ccesarano wrote:
Squee9 wrote:

But yeah it's time for me to meet some of you.

You bastard, have you already forgotten Escapist Expo? :P

I was referring to a specific LoL playing some. We have a special bond that needs to be forged in the fires of physical contact and quenched with delicious drinks.

Also, you went to RIT? 95% of my acolytes went to RIT, I bet we know some people in common.

Atras wrote:

And the Westin is already sold out?

OnPeak has probably already grabbed their blocks of rooms, so we'll just have to wait until they start taking reservations.

Squee9 wrote:
ccesarano wrote:
Squee9 wrote:

But yeah it's time for me to meet some of you.

You bastard, have you already forgotten Escapist Expo? :P

I was referring to a specific LoL playing some. We have a special bond that needs to be forged in the fires of physical contact and quenched with delicious drinks.

Also, you went to RIT? 95% of my acolytes went to RIT, I bet we know some people in common.

if you went to pencon last year you would of had the pleasure of having a room with me and dyni!

I can't wait till next pencon where I will get to see you wonderful people again or for the first time.

Stengah wrote:
Atras wrote:

And the Westin is already sold out?

OnPeak has probably already grabbed their blocks of rooms, so we'll just have to wait until they start taking reservations.

This. OnPeak didn't open their block until after the badges sold out as well, which is one of the reasons a lot of people got stuck at other locations. They tried to do both the badge and hotel and it looked like there was nothing available.

Complex wrote:
Squee9 wrote:
ccesarano wrote:
Squee9 wrote:

But yeah it's time for me to meet some of you.

You bastard, have you already forgotten Escapist Expo? :P

I was referring to a specific LoL playing some. We have a special bond that needs to be forged in the fires of physical contact and quenched with delicious drinks.

Also, you went to RIT? 95% of my acolytes went to RIT, I bet we know some people in common.

if you went to pencon last year you would of had the pleasure of having a room with me and dyni!

I can't wait till next pencon where I will get to see you wonderful people again or for the first time.

Sometimes I violently love you complex.

Hopefully this year I will not be on a four hour tether to North Carolina...

Minarchist, I'm glad you had a great time. I'll say this - I went to the GWJ slap and tickle at PAX Prime and had a great time. Even got a chance to make friends with some people who I've had some throw-downs with in P&C, and I think we all walked away with better understanding of each other's views.

But I also wanted to share the flip side of how these sort of meet-ups can go wrong. A few years back, I decided to get together with some WOW clanmates at the local Outback. About halfway through the dinner, one of the couples start hinting they are swingers and somewhat discretely implied that my wife and I should join them. There was also some talk about the dominatrix job that put one of the girls through college.

Now, I'm not judging and don't really care what consenting adults do. I'm just saying it was an incredibly awkward dinner. The worst part is some of my other guildmates knew all about some of the kinkiness this particular group was notorious for, but they all urged me to meet them in person. I didn't know this because a lot of it came out on late night raids that I didn't attend. When I asked later why nobody prepared me what to expect, everybody on Vent started laughing.

ccesarano wrote:
Stengah wrote:
Atras wrote:

And the Westin is already sold out?

OnPeak has probably already grabbed their blocks of rooms, so we'll just have to wait until they start taking reservations.

This. OnPeak didn't open their block until after the badges sold out as well, which is one of the reasons a lot of people got stuck at other locations. They tried to do both the badge and hotel and it looked like there was nothing available.

I think this is what I saw on the PAX forums. Block is already reserved so it won't be available until we get closer to the event. Based on what I heard on the Silver Line on Thursday, people should start checking the PAX forums in the Fall. Apparently, the hotel booking site was live a bit before it was linked from the main PAX site, and the url was leaked before the general public found out.

Minarchist wrote:

Or they could have set up a highly-efficient organ-harvesting assembly line in the basement.

… Well, disassembly line, to be precise.

Pssst, MonoCheli, they're on to us! Next they'll be wondering what was really in the breakfast sausages...

Last year's PenCon was my first mass meet up of internet folks, and I admit to having my share of nerves about the whole thing. I mean I knew Oily and MonoCheli of course, but there were going to be nearly 60 more Avatars-Turned-Real-People there as well.

Needless to say I was extremely pleased with how friendly everyone was, and how easy it was to fall into a comfort level. I didn't get as much time to socialize as I'd have liked since I had to work most of the weekend, but I had a great time nonetheless. I'm looking forward to the next event, where I plan to spend all of my time at the game table and on the receiving rather than pouring side of the bar.

I made friends with someone in UO over 13 years ago (a friendship which also extended to his bestfriend) and they've become two of my absolute closest friends during that time. We chatted in IRC and UO via typing until various voice chat tech became available. We all just clicked (both in friendship and in our style/tastes of gameplay) so we followed each other around to every MMO or other similar MP game for online play. There are nights where we don't play anything but just log on to chat. Our schedules have changed over the years but we always keep in touch. I looped Farscry into that mix several years ago as well (when we both lived in IA - I've since moved to IL) and he fit right in. Now it's the four of us that are always in touch.

Trouble has been that both of those old UO guys live in Canada and I've never met them in person. Ever! Until a couple of weeks ago when they surprised us by stepping forward and making the trip to the States to attend my St. Patty's Day wedding. This got the four of us together (Farscry was my best man) for the first time and we had a tremendous time. An absolute blast! Easily one of the best I've ever had. They also connected with my new in-laws and they all fell in love with those guys (Facebooks and other contact information was exchanged).

Now that the initial travel ice is broken we're all on track to make this at least an annual thing and alternate trips between countries (Fars and I will most likely take our turn and travel up North next). I know this doesn't work for everyone but I couldn't be happier about it. Also makes it easier to target the Chicago S&Ts with Fars sometime soon.

nel e nel wrote:

My internet friendship with SallyNasty taught me that platonic love can exist between a man and a woman.

Um, there is something that I have been meaning to talk to you about...

oilypenguin wrote:
Thin_J wrote:

Oh look, another reminder I missed Pencon.

I knew there was a reason I bought a bottle of Glenlivet to try out.

So stop missing them.

All vacation time already scheduled, vacation schedule is packed so moving it is impossible, etc,etc.

Thin_J wrote:
oilypenguin wrote:
Thin_J wrote:

Oh look, another reminder I missed Pencon.

I knew there was a reason I bought a bottle of Glenlivet to try out.

So stop missing them.

All vacation time already scheduled, vacation schedule is packed so moving it is impossible, etc,etc.

I'm in a smiliar situation... but the sooner I know 2014 dates the more likely I can go.

jdzappa wrote:

But I also wanted to share the flip side of how these sort of meet-ups can go wrong…

Oh, absolutely that can happen, and I don't mean to downplay it. However, I think on the aggregate we tend towards fearing that will happen much more than it does, whereas the highly successful stories tend to outnumber them greatly on aggregate. If we trended towards always going out to meet others even in situations where it might not be advisable, I would instead be writing an article about using better judgement and discernment.

In other words, there is a risk, but in general the reward is worth it. Unless you're maybe getting a SomethingAwful group together or something; caveat emptor, then.

ccesarano wrote:
Stengah wrote:
Atras wrote:

And the Westin is already sold out?

OnPeak has probably already grabbed their blocks of rooms, so we'll just have to wait until they start taking reservations.

This. OnPeak didn't open their block until after the badges sold out as well, which is one of the reasons a lot of people got stuck at other locations. They tried to do both the badge and hotel and it looked like there was nothing available.

I think GenCon does it right. Big announcement that badges go on sale at X time on Y date, hotel block opens at A time on B date, event registration goes live at D time on E date.

It truly sucked finding out that ALL the hotels in the Seaport area were already sold out by the time the link went live "to the public" because of everyone trolling the PAX forums.

Stengah wrote:
momgamer wrote:

That's actually pretty awesome. I'm lucky if I can remember my own name half the time. ;)

I actually walked past my wife who was calling my (first) name from the line to the women's bathroom because I thought it was someone calling for a different Jason. Stengah was my nickname through most of high school, so I'm more likely to respond to that than to my actual first name.

She was probably just spamming the X button.

McIrishJihad wrote:
ccesarano wrote:
Stengah wrote:
Atras wrote:

And the Westin is already sold out?

OnPeak has probably already grabbed their blocks of rooms, so we'll just have to wait until they start taking reservations.

This. OnPeak didn't open their block until after the badges sold out as well, which is one of the reasons a lot of people got stuck at other locations. They tried to do both the badge and hotel and it looked like there was nothing available.

I think GenCon does it right. Big announcement that badges go on sale at X time on Y date, hotel block opens at A time on B date, event registration goes live at D time on E date.

I would argue that they could do better. They are improving, but they can make it extremely hard for groups to book together and get enough space to host afterparties.

Note: If someone wants to buy a condo on the circle as investment property and make it available to us in August, we would be thoroughly appreciative.

manta173 wrote:

That said I do hate the term "internet friends" because it comes with the connotation that they are not "real" friends.

Agreed.

Since I moved to Florida a couple years ago, I don't see my old high school and college friends that often. We spend a lot of time texting and calling to keep up. But seriously, I talk to some of you people more between coop games or these forums or chatting on Steam or IRC. I don't like the label of lesser friends just because we don't hang out face to face. I don't hang out with my "real friends" face to face much anymore either, but no one would classify them as lesser friends or whatever.

Stele wrote:
manta173 wrote:

That said I do hate the term "internet friends" because it comes with the connotation that they are not "real" friends.

Agreed.

Since I moved to Florida a couple years ago, I don't see my old high school and college friends that often. We spend a lot of time texting and calling to keep up. But seriously, I talk to some of you people more between coop games or these forums or chatting on Steam or IRC. I don't like the label of lesser friends just because we don't hang out face to face. I don't hang out with my "real friends" face to face much anymore either, but no one would classify them as lesser friends or whatever. :?

Exactly. Aside from my brother and brother-in-law the groomsmen at my wedding and I have spent maybe a grand total of 2 weeks talking to each other over the last 4 years. After college we moved all over and we just don't talk much.

I spend maybe 10 hours a week on mumble with my "internet" friends. I don't know anyone that talk to parents and siblings that much after leaving home (and my wife calls her parents daily).

manta173 wrote:
Thin_J wrote:
oilypenguin wrote:
Thin_J wrote:

Oh look, another reminder I missed Pencon.

I knew there was a reason I bought a bottle of Glenlivet to try out.

So stop missing them.

All vacation time already scheduled, vacation schedule is packed so moving it is impossible, etc,etc.

I'm in a smiliar situation... but the sooner I know 2014 dates the more likely I can go.

Oh good lord. You know what? Here you go.

Minpencon13: 4-19 through 4-21
Pencon13: 10-11 through 10-13*
Minpencon14: 4-25 through 4-27**
Pencon14: 10-10 through 10-12**

*Dates subject to change through availability since we don't have a venue yet and I normally don't announce until after min. Also I haven't even talked to my staff yet. Um, crap. I think I need to start on this.

**Dates subject to change due to it being a really really long time away and also me possibly not writing this down and forgetting.

Sorry I know it's a pain... but my wife literally plans our vacation a year ahead of time. I will add these to my to do list though so maybe I can get to one.