Everyone on the Internet is an Axe Murderer
There’s a lot of cultural fear about what might happen if you first connect with people virtually and then meet them “in ‘real’ life,” although I prefer to call this “in physical life” (IPL) because I think that the virtual is very real. I don’t want to minimize the risks that might be associated with people being exploited or hurt by people they have met online (or IPL for that matter…remember Looking for Mr. Goodbar?)–there certainly are things that you need to watch out for. For example, at least once a month I receive an out-of-the-blue message on Facebook from some attractive man I have never met telling me I have a nice smile, and then telling me his life story and his desire for a real relationship. Pursuing this, or something like this, is not likely to have a good outcome. This is NOT what I will be writing about.
I’ve been fortunate to establish some really good connections with a wide range of people online. Beginning with my LiveJournal blogging days, then Second Life, and then Twitter, I’ve made quite a few friends in virtual spaces. And over the years, I’ve had a chance to meet quite a few of them face to face. @DorleeM once asked me how many people I had met IPL and I was surprised once I actually counted–I first came up with a count of 8, and I’ve never attended one of the major convention meet-ups where people would typically make these connections–those 8 were all personal connections that I made on my own with specific people that I met first online. They don’t include small Tweetups where I have met a group of people at once.
After I counted these virtual–>face-to-face relationships, I realized with surprise that the number is actually much greater than that because in the mid-1990s I had been connecting with quite a few people through an international listserv of EMDR therapists. I established some close connections in that context and then eventually met most of those people at a national conference, some of whom have become very good friends now. What’s interesting to me is that at that time, no one batted an eyelash about me meeting those people, maybe because I was meeting them in a professional context. Or perhaps because it was a group/convention setting, especially a work context.
However, the first time I arranged to meet someone that I had met through a social network, a close friend joked, “be careful, she might be an axe murderer.” I don’t think my friend was joking though. I sensed real anxiety behind the comment. My friend was definitely concerned that people you meet online will turn out to be very different from how they portrayed themselves and even potentially dangerous (see Catfish for a true story of the former). I think there’s something about meeting a person you’ve met online socially that raises the cultural specter of being kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer.
So, Did They Turn Out to Be Axe Murderers?
So I’m here to report that there’s nothing exciting to report on this topic because every person that I’ve met face-to-face turned out to be exactly who they portrayed themselves to be online–and none of them were axe murderers. Go figure. I’ve wondered about this and have come to the conclusion that I screen people online in some of the same ways that I do IRL I avoid people who feel false (too good to be true), and those who are high-drama, and those who are too slick, and those who just feel “off.” While the content of what people post is clearly a large part of what I assess, I also have learned to trust my intuition about people, both in virtual and face-to-face interactions. This is a lesson I learned as a young adult–ignoring my gut instincts about people came with a significant price. I have no idea how to completely understand how my gut reaction enters into guiding me in virtual interactions, but it does. I think it’s not just about what the content, but also about the spaces in our interactions and the energy I get from someone. I’m wincing about that last sentence…did I really write that? The scientist in me is horrified. But the me in me is not and will stand by the statement.
Integrating the Virtual & Physical
What’s most interesting to me is that when I first meet someone, it does take some time for my virtual sense of them to integrate with my new-found IPL sense of them. Virtually I acquire a strong sense of someone emotionally and intellectually. When I then meet them IPL there’s a strange sensation as my mind-body processes all the information you get about someone IPL with what I know about them virtually. It’s a bit like processing information on two parallel tracks simultaneously. Eventually the strands come together and weave a complete sense of someone, but it takes some time. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not I’ve interacted with them through video. Whatever I pick up IPL isn’t transmitted through a video medium, although certainly those interactions deepen my virtual sense of someone.
What Have Your Experiences Been Meeting Virtual Friends Face-to-Face?
I’d love to hear about others’ experiences meeting people virtually and then face-to-face. Any disasters? Successes? What’s your experience been like as you integrate that physical life sense of who someone is into your virtual connection?
If you haven’t met any of your virtual friends face-to-face, do you want to do so? If so, what are your thoughts and/or feelings about doing so? If not, why not?