In yesterday’s article, we discussed how the internet can bind old friendships.  Today, we’ll examine why meeting virtual friends in person often leads to disaster and misconception.


I have a lot of internet friends and I only know their online persona — their “Virtual Being” — and when you meet someone new through a textual medium, you naturally begin to color in the missing facts of their lives that are normally provided in a real time meeting between blood and bone.

There is always a temptation to want to get together in person with a virtual friend and I recommend against ever letting it happen because that friendship will be destroyed in the natural misalignment of expectation.  That, at least, has been my experience, and the experience of many good friends across the globe.

Changing the interactive parameters of any friendship mauls the organic center of the very creation of the friendship.  Death on the tethered vine always follows.

Here’s one vivid example of a sloppy death from many years ago.

A team of us were providing technical support for a major computer company, and to pay us back for all our volunteer work, we were flown out to a sunny “training” conference from points across the world.  Few of us had met in person.  We only knew each other through our words.

Most of the in-person meetings were okay, but not spectacular, as the real festered against the imagined, but one person especially stood out to the rest of us as being devastatingly strange when reality hit the virtual.

This particular fellow had a fantastic persona online.  He was witty and helpful and over-eager to do everyone’s bidding.  He made our lives faster and simpler.  Everyone on the team considered him a great dude and a 100% friend for life.

Then we met him in person.

The guy was everything he was — but that certain “additional extra” that the in-person provided ruined our imagination of him and immediately interdicted any possibility of  future friendship.

The first thing he said to us was that he wanted to get naked and have a hot tub party because he was a swinger.  He wasn’t joking.  He was unable to socially read the disgust and revulsion on all our faces as he proceeded to make plans for us later that night.

He then began to make inappropriate remarks about the women on the team.  He degraded the company we were all serving.  His beady eyes and nefarious laugh made your gut turn in alarm warnings to your brain that you would never be safe alone in a room with him.

The moment he excused himself from the meeting, the rest of us said nothing as our hopes and wishes were punctured by the fact of his real self demolished all the goodwill he’d build polishing his online persona.  The real was not present in the virtual expectation.

Ever since that revelation of revulsion, I have been careful to keep my virtual friendships virtual and my in person friendships as separate, but equal, entities.  There have been times when necessity forces a real meeting of the imagined — but the result is always disappointing. 

Reality never measures up to the required creative advancement of the essence of a person you have to build in order to relate to them on a human level.  We tend to make the unknown into ourselves for comfort and familiarity, and when that reflection becomes reflexive, we recoil in disrecognition of the self.

Perhaps, in the future, with the rise of live video, the virtual and the real won’t have such a crashing conflict when they are formed into the same person.

I’ll give you another caveat against scientifically proven failure of the human condition.  If you had a great friend in person and fell out of touch for more than a decade — and you then try to re-ignite the relationship only virtually — that effort is guaranteed to fail in a bloody mess because the historic real can never resurrect in the virtual now without ripping a hole in the time-space continuum. 

You have been warned to leave the world whole!

14 Comments

  1. Wow. What a disappointment it must have been to meet this person. Maybe that’s why I present myself the way I do – because people who meet me say that they can’t believe I really do talk about the bears in person the way I do online. 🙂

  2. Ha! Funny, Gordon! I admit it was a bit of a shock to hear your voice for the first time. Not what I was ex-pect-ting!
    It was disappointing meeting him. We had such a wonderful online friendship and it was genuine — I thought. After that meeting, though, things were never the same. It was just plain strange and unfortunate.

  3. That’s so true. But it’s happening now. You got myspace and facebook and other services. Every now and then I’m getting friend requests from people I dont know. Seems as if people are sick of the real world and seek the virtual world. Look at 2nd Life the game or other similar games.. But if the people in the virtual world hide some stuff, don’t the people we know physically also hide things?
    -Ed

  4. Ed —
    Good points! I read somewhere that younger people today expect to have at least two lives: One online and one in person. They are able to swing back-and-forth between realities without missing a beat changing norms or values.
    You’re right that in person people have secrets — but they cannot hide their voice or spirit or eyes or countenance — seeing is believing and smelling, feeling and tasting the “entire person” in real life is how we judge and value each other. It sounds like a meat market and, in many ways, it is. Online friendships are much cleaner and more aesthetic — and antiseptic! — than those we cobble in person.

  5. I have always known not to meet a person from on line. I have drilled that message into the heads of my children and nieces with great clarity. I chatted with a gentleman from Philly one night. He was supposedly a bible student at a local religious college. Being a preachers daughter I was eager to discuss biblical subject matter with him. I typed scriptures and chapters from books in my library. Some to support his views and opinions others to refute his idealism. He mellowed out some over time and seemed rather harmless. Then, the conversation shifted from biblical subject matter to his own sick fantasies. He was extremely descriptive with what he was imagining doing to me. I tried blocking him, but he was able to get past that somehow.I of course, told my husband about it. We agreed to not even respond to him. It escalated! One night, about 11:00 p.m. the phone rang. I was the only one up, so I answered the phone. It was him! I felt sick! I ask how he got my number and “to please leave me alone”. He called again and again. Once,he even described the exact clothing I was wearing. By that time, I am waking my husband because I am ultimately alarmed and horrified! To my knowledge we never met face to face. I never agreed to anything! He was able to track me down. I never imagined such an event in my wildest dreams! We called the police. There were cigarette butts found around some of our windows. No one in my household smokes. I was so scared that my husband had to take off from work because I didn’t want to be left alone. It was a nightmare taking place in the “here and now”. Nothing ever came of it. He was never located. Eventually, the phone calls stopped. A year later, we moved from that address. Thank God! I now work for a school and know that I myself pull up information on people from all over the world to send out invitations for class reunions and banquets. It’s very easy to locate you. The key is to not use your real name or give out personal information. Not everyone one line can be trusted. Even those that seem harmless! I sure learned my lesson!

  6. That is an amazing and horrifying story, Heartmelody69.
    I think you’re right, though, that there’s no such thing as anonymity. People think they’re anonymous, but they are not. It is very easy to find a person and track then down.
    I do, however, prefer people to use their real names online — because that can be empowering as well — just because people then own their behaviors and words. If everyone did that, the world would be a better place online because you’d know who is sniping or attacking you.
    Your stalker story is on another realm. That sort of person is hard find and punish because they love scaring and hiding in the shadows. They would not be able to survive if not for the opportunity to hurt without being identified.
    I’ve sustained a lot of threats here — I’ve written about them — but I’ve never been threatened by someone using their real name and their real email address.

  7. I understand what you are saying about a person owning their words by identifying themselves. But, you do have to understand my reluctancy to do so (except on secure sites) considering my encounter. He was no longer words on a screen … he was real and a very present danger! I do blame myself to some degree. I was raised in a safe and protecting environment. I did and somewhat still, have a naive side. I trusted someone I didn’t know! I gave him access because I felt the need to fill in all the blanks on my page. There was too much information listed there for him. I made it too easy for him. It’s because of people like him that we have to conceal our true identities. You know, this creates an “Identity Crisis”. You can’t stand up to what you can not identify.

  8. Ruined? Why? Because I don’t use my God given name to submit my entries. I am so very sorry that this troubles you so much. David, have you ever had to carry your keys in your hand (as a weapon, if necessary) on your way to your car? Have you ever had someone follow you home from work? Have you ever felt the level of fear that I am expressing? It is very hard to overcome! Once someone compromises our trust and takes the “virtual” and intertwines it with “reality” it is very shocking! I do want you to know that I will try to work on my inhibitions. No promises though.

  9. Heartmelody69 —
    I completely understand what you’re saying: You are obviously not safe or feeling safe and that, to me, is how a person is ruined by a coward’s intimidation.
    He has incarcerated you with lingering fear. You are forever on alert. He is always around the next corner.
    He still limits your options, he colors your trust, and he devalues everything you used to hold dear every time your censor a thought or take a reactionary behavior. You don’t ever have to use your real name here because I know you and I know you are not a Spammer or a stalker or a rotten coward.
    I do understand because I’ve been there because of my public role here and it is hard to live your life against threats — but I’ve always been one to be alert — and you beat back a bully with a punch in the face, not by running and hiding. I’m always ready to react and fight. Perhaps that’s what I get for living in a big city after small time Nebraska — but it does bring some comfort that you’re always prepared to react instead of wondering who will act upon you.
    Here’s a piece I wrote about blogger Michael Arrington who was similarly assaulted in public by an anonymous coward:
    http://relationshaping.com/2009/01/29/spitter-rage-and-michael-arrington.html
    Here’s another I wrote on — “Beating the Cyber Bully” —
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2008/12/26/beating-the-cyberbully
    Sycophants:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2007/08/13/sycophants-in-rejection-making-terroristic-threats

  10. Hi David,
    I don’t remember meeting a “virtual friend” in person till date, so I am curious about your observation.
    Two mature adults meeting in person after knowing each other “ethereally” – why would it go wrong and end up in disillusionment?

  11. Katha —
    It has to do with the coloring of expectation and the loss of comity. In the example of the article none of us had any idea the fellow we met in person was a “naked hot tub swinger” in real life. So was he creating a sin of omission online? Or didn’t that fact matter in a virtual life? Why, when we were all in person, did he feel the need to tell us that? What changed from the ethereal to the real?
    Another example: I am reminded of Nicola’s reaction to your calling her on the phone — she was surprised and not expecting it and hearing your voice modified every interaction she’d previously had with you. I believe she was delighted and thrilled to hear from you, but just the sound of your voice changed her reflection of you in her mind’s imagining of you. Some people can stand that change while others cannot.

  12. Hi David,
    That’s why I said “two mature adults” and the person you referred definitely failed to match the standard.
    Whether he hided this trait or you all couldn’t read it – I don’t know.
    As far as Nicola’s instance go – the phone call was not mutually decided, I sort of invaded her world…
    Whether she was pleased, thrilled or shocked I don’t know – I thought I should call and let her know we were thinking about her – I did.
    I don’t think I would do it again, because my purpose is served.
    But, I understand your point about handling change, it makes sense.

  13. I guess it’s hard to define “mature” in a world where no one necessarily appears as they are or even wish to be. Meeting in person always changes the virtual dyad and, in my experience, the aftereffects are usually damaging. Expectation rarely beats reality.
    I appreciate you previously getting in touch with Nicola. She’s gone missing again for over two months. No idea where how or why. So we just wait for her hopeful return.