I have been on the internets about half my life now (!) and as a result have met a goodly number of people via that medium. Friends, lovers, co-workers, partners in crime… From assorted countries and continents and backgrounds and futures. This is my normal. (People who still cringe and act all embarrassed about “admitting” they met someone “on the internet” annoy the ever-lovin’ crap outta me.)

I’ve been thinking about these internet people a fair bit the last couple of months, mostly because I’ve been meeting more of them in a shorter span of time than usual. And as of next week, thanks to SXSW, I’ll be meeting more of them in one place than I’ve ever met before (and that includes the year spent in Sydney).

It’s certainly a great deal easier to meet people in person if you already know them via online interactions and shenanigans. As long as you recognize a face you’re off to the races — head over, say hi, and the conversation starts itself. I do not hug “real life” strangers within seconds of meeting them, but I do that with internet people all the time. (Because the internets? That’s real life, too. In many ways to an even starker degree than face to face real life.)

As a result of all these meetings and greetings and development of relationships, I’ve learned a number of things about managing relationships on and offline (and the transition between the two). Once upon a time it seemed the norm that I would get along just fine with everyone I knew online, but when we met each other in person, at most 20% of them were people I’d actually want to hang out and develop friendships with. It made me ponder just how much of ourselves we were hiding or molding for public consumption. Or if I just didn’t like people very much…

That’s not so much the case anymore. Do I want to become BFF with every person I meet who I’ve been acquainted with online? No, but I’d say the ratio has flipped, and so I am happy to socialize repeatedly with more like 80% of them.

Why is this? Not entirely sure. Chalk it up to maturity — I’m at least a decade older and so are they. Not saying that gets rid of all the potential drama, but it gets rid of some of the more egregious kinds, and most people know how to handle themselves.

Chalk it up to lives sorting themselves out so we know who we are and what we want to do — the circles I mix and mingle in now tend to be more homogeneous than they used to be, so the types of people I meet and the interests we have are less of a crapshoot.

Chalk it up to a better developed sense of self — I no longer feel obligated to continue to socialize with people I can tell I don’t click with. And there are so many other folks out there that it’s really quite easy to just drift away and not return to conversation with someone. (And to remove them from friends/followers/etc. lists on many social sites, which means we don’t even really see each other anymore.)

Related to that, I am also getting better at socializing with all kinds of people (even outside of my homogeneous social sphere). I am naturally quite introverted, but no longer have the luxury of hiding in corners, and so I’ve learned to be better at striking up conversations and finding ways to keep them going. I’m still sometimes very tired at the end of social gatherings, but sometimes I’m completely invigorated, too, which is pretty cool.

I’ve also developed a theory about timelines. In the old days, due to geography and finances, particularly, it was usually the case that you either would likely never meet online friends at all, or, if you did, it would be quite some time after you met them online. For example, with the Australians I knew, it was years — I met them when I moved there.

But the more time that passes between meeting online and meeting in person, the more time each party has to construct a mental model of the other. This is a pretty common phenomenon online (though less glaring now when pictures, video, etc. are so ubiquitous), and is why it’s not unusual for someone you consider a friend to not look or sound “right” in person. Of course the person was no different all along; your mental model was just constructed according to your tastes and ideas.

In general, ideally online friends should meet in person as soon as possible. It prevents the development of detailed and incorrect mental models, and enables you to continue bonding face to face, which will almost always create stronger bonds (usually more quickly) than online interactions. (Kinda like how if you get drunk with someone in your youth, you’re pretty much friends for life.) You don’t even have to see online friends often in person, but meeting face to face at least once is good for relationships.

It’s good, too, to change up the pace of relationships with people. While spending time face to face is better for bonding overall, I think, it’s another online phenomenon that time passes faster online, and by the same token relationships develop faster online as well. Sometimes it’s good to step back and change the context and scenery and realize you don’t know the person that well yet.

Of course, it does depend on the nature of your relationship with other people online. For example, it’s not such a big deal whether or not you meet business acquaintances immediately. Given the nature and limited interaction of your relationship, it’s unlikely either of you has expended that much energy developing a mental model of the other. And realizations of what the other person is really like are more of a “Huh, who knew?” moment than a mild social system shock.

If the nature of the relationship between two online friends is romantic, however, it’s considerably more important for them to meet in person asap. The more you want someone to like you, the more likely you are to tweak your presentation of yourself to be what you think they want. (Yes, we still do this long after we’re no longer insecure teenagers.) And by the same token, you’re likely to “see” in your partner what you want to see.

You develop impressions of faces and voices and fantasies of things you’ll do together (yes, that, but other, more pedestrian stuff as well). And the reality of the other person can be not only a shock, but lead to unpleasant realizations.

No matter how open you are with each other, there’s plenty that’s not necessarily readily apparent online. I can know your hopes and dreams and that you have blue eyes and two sisters, but have no idea that you are an utter domestic slob. Or rude to service people. Or a terrible kisser. And even if you hear the dish about someone you’re interested in from someone who knows them in person, you are most likely going to play down the parts you don’t want to hear.

So really, best to dispense with the illusions and delusions asap. Honestly, we can tell in a split second if we’re physically interested in someone, so why get emotionally attached to someone and later enjoy the rude awakening that you have no interest in getting physically attached? This is extra important for online dating. You’re not doing either of you any favours by keeping the other person at invisible arms’ length until you feel you’ve sufficiently plumbed the depths of their psyche.

Admittedly, if meeting in person hasn’t been possible, and you end up with an already established relationship and bonded with someone, you’ll overlook a lot about the other person once you finally do meet in person. It’ll take a bit of getting used to, but it happens fairly quickly. Particularly with physical stuff. (Getting used to a voice you didn’t expect is particularly strange, for whatever reason.) Personality-wise, you determine what are mildly annoying yet endearing quirks and what are deal-breakers.

And, as noted before, it’s okay for a deal-breaker to be a deal-breaker. You enjoyed your friendship online, but it turns out there’s something about the person face to face that prevents you from wanting to continue the friendship. Or it’s someone you fancied and had high hopes for as a partner, but it turns out there’s no chemistry there. Don’t lead someone on if you know you’re never going want to be close friends, or never going to be attracted to them.

Also, and this cannot be stressed enough (in online or offline relationships): being “Just Friends” never, EVER works if one of the two people is romantically interested in each other. No, never. Even if the person who’s romantically interested claims they’re okay with just being friends. Seriously.

It’s okay for relationships between people not to work out. That’s what happens most of the time. Even if you desperately want it to work, and are hoping that if you just hang in there you’ll bond and become BFF, or the spark of chemistry will suddenly kindle and everything will change. Odds of that happening? Really low. Infinitesmally low.

It’s far more likely you’re just going to end up with a messy ending and really hurting the other person, which, of course, was the last thing you ever wanted. Rejection is never pleasant, and the idea of doing it online where you have the relief of not having to see the person’s face is very attractive. (Have you ever heard of a good scenario where someone rejected/broke up with/fired someone else via email, text message, Facebook wall, etc.? I thought not.)

There are a lot of fun and seductive angles (as far as our egos are concerned) to conducting relationships with folks online. You can limit pictures they see of you to your most flattering ones. You have time to write out responses, so you can be at your most clever. And you can take your time getting to know folks (or only get to know them via subjects of mutual interest or social comfort).

But with a few exceptions, most interpersonal relationships end up offline, face to face, with all the splendiferousness and messiness that is inherent to human interactions. After a couple of decades, we’re still getting the hang of managing the trickiness of things like lack of eye contact, tone of voice, and body language in conducting interactions online.

Humans are wired to grok in-person communication. The stuff we’re saying non-verbally makes up like 90% of what we’re actually saying and how. Emoticons are handy, but they don’t make up for a lack of communications evolution.

So if possible, step away from the keyboard. Talk on the phone, send each other mail (it’s retro, but everyone loves getting mail!), and if you’re close enough, go hang out. Have drinks (ahh, alcohol, the classic social lubricant…) or coffee. An hour’s time investment could just save you a heap of drama and social discomfort down the line, or, better, lead to some of the best friendships you ever have, some of the most productive business partnerships, or most inspiring creative endeavours.

Not bad for imaginary friends. đŸ™‚

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