The first time I met an Internet friend “in real life” was strangely anticlimactic. Don’t get me wrong – it was still very weird to see my friend Emily’s face animated in motion for the first time, and I was a whole lot taller than her, which I didn’t expect. But since everyone I have met the traditional way was freaking out that I was going to eat lunch with a stranger from the Internet, I was expecting it to feel weirder than it did.
Mostly, it was wonderful to see a whole person, in person, where before I’d had tweets and texts and Facebook posts and voice messages. But it didn’t feel strange to me at all; it just felt normal. This is my friend, and she is here, and now I know I dwarf her in person.
We live in an age where Internet friendships are the norm. We make best friends online, we meet lovers, we create lasting bonds from across continents. To me and to my friends who I’ve met online, it isn’t weird at all. It’s our normal, and it’s great fun. But there’s still a stigma attached to meeting someone on the Internet, as I found when trying to explain to a coworker that I was talking with someone I’d met on a dating site. There’s this thought that someone you meet on the Internet is someone you haven’t met in the “right” way, or the normal way, and it makes it somehow icky or weird or plain wrong.
I have found my life so enriched by the people I have met online. I have a group of Twitter friends who turned into voxing friends and we talk about our days, our families and our heartbreaks, just like any IRL friends would. It doesn’t matter that we spread across the country from California to Ohio to Oregon. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never hugged them. I know that they are people who I can call and count on.
I recognize that not everyone is as connected to others from afar as I am. I’m sure there are downsides, too – I’m often tethered to my phone to have a conversation over 140 characters that would be much more rapid-fire in real time. When I want to see a friend for coffee, I often can’t because they live a thousand miles or an ocean away.
To me, though, having and maintaining friendships that have been forged through Instagram likes and blog posts is not much different than keeping up with friends I made in college and moved away from. Some of my best friends are people I met in “real-life” situations and then kept in touch with through moves and life changes. Social media has been a vital part of staying a part of each other’s lives. The only difference between the friends I’ve made the traditional way and the ones who became dear to me one tweet at at time is that I haven’t hugged some of them.
I don’t even like the phrase “in real life” because, for me, who I am online and who I am in my everyday are one and the same. It isn’t hard to make genuine connections or forge bonds across internet platforms, and I have a pretty even spread of friendships across the internet and real life board. I’m not saying exercising caution isn’t important, but once you’re literate in the ways of the web, you’re able to filter real from not real fairly easily.
I think we’ve come to a point where the separation between our physical lives and our lives on the internet is growing ever smaller. The distinction of what we’ll allow as valid in friendships and what we won’t, simply because they started over tweets instead of coffee, is blurry. I vote we just accept that this is where we’re at, and let life-affirming friendships be exactly what they are, no matter where they originated. And hey, bonus, I know I’ll always have a place to stay in Ohio..and England…and Australia…and Canada…and more.