I met my first “Internet” friend before it was considered unsafe to do so; actually, before it was considered at all. The year was 1996, and this boy I talked to online took a visit to my town with his parents. We hung out one afternoon, and I got my first taste of what it’s like when someone misrepresents their self on the Internet. We never talked again.
My second Internet-to-real-life friendship was a bit more of a success. We met that same summer in the same chat room, and took our friendship offline that same year – to phone calls and snail mail, anyway. It wasn’t until the year 2000, a few months past my 18th birthday, that (with my parents’ permission) I flew out to Chicago to meet Adrian. It was the summer before college for both of us, and I stayed with him at his parents’ house in Michigan. We’ve kept in touch over the years, visiting each other again at least once. He’s now one of my oldest friends.
And then there’s my new roommate; our friendship started when we were college freshmen and both blogged on Livejournal.com (though back then we called it journaling). As we (and our numerous other LJ friends) grew from angsty teenagers to young women, several of us met offline (and nearly all of us have taken our relationships from Livejournal to other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and good old-fashioned e-mail). I met my now-roommate for the first time in 2003, visited again once or twice, and when I moved to Boston two years ago, we became close friends. On Monday, we’ll both meet a third LJ friend for the first time.
After that, the lines begin to blur…there was OK! Cupid where I met that boy and had that fling in Burlington; MySpace, where I made contacts in Morocco before I relocated there; Lonely Planet’s ThornTree, where I cavorted with fellow travelers, who sent me books and peanut butter when I was down; CouchSurfing, which brought all sorts of different people from all over the world into my home…After that, there was Global Voices, then Berkman, and now I’m not sure whether I met certain people online or in person first.
At this point, I no longer distinguish between “online” and “offline” friends. Just as it felt entirely normal in 1996 to make a friend online and expect the relationship to grow in person, there is now the realization that it can go both ways. If I meet you at a party today and we exchange information (because face it, we are more likely to exchange e-mails or Twitter accounts than we are to exchange phone numbers nowadays), it is more likely that our friendship will grow online before we meet again. And surely there is a benefit to that; rather than sit through dinners or drinks in awkward silence as we get to know each other, by the time we see one another again, we’ll be aware of common interests: similar academic or political interests, shared friends, compatible tastes in music or books. In other words, we’ll bypass the awkward moments, leaving more time to make more valuable friendships and skip over those which don’t provide us with value.
The same goes for work: Traditional networking events are all well and good, and I certainly believe in meeting people first in person before making any business plans (someone whose résumé and skills look great on paper can present horribly), but such events move quickly, and you want time to work the room. Being able to chat with someone interesting for five or ten minutes with the knowledge that we can meet up again online later makes it easier for me to move on.
I’m sure most of my readers will feel the same way I do; after all, I’m only a peon compared to some of the great Internet minds I cavort with every day. But what does the rest of this country think? The world? I’ll bet it’ll be a long time before the lines blur so easily for most people. “Meeting someone online” for most still implies dating: Match.com comes to mind far before Twitter. Not to mention the fact that the generation of digital natives has been taught, for better or for worse, that the Internet is full of predators. On the other hand, today’s youth think nothing of connecting to their “offline” friends online, making all sorts of things possible.
As Web 2.0 gives way to Web 3.0 and beyond, and as social media continues to grow, so will our conception of relationships and what makes them strong. And as we take our online friends to the “real world” and our offline friends to the Net, those lines will ever so slowly begin to blur for all of us.