Notes on Virtual Relationships
The smell of popcorn and cotton candy is in the air. Behind my left shoulder I hear the words I've been waiting for: "Cold beeeeeeeeer, get'cha cold beer." The sun has painted the clear night sky with shades of orange and pink behind the backdrop of the downtown Atlanta skyline. Here, at Turner Field, in downtown Atlanta, all of my worlds have collided. My world of travel, work, and sports, but also of virtual and real-world friendships. "How the hell did you pull that off?" I imagine that was the question I asked Epstein most frequently over the course of the evening. Just behind home plate, we sit above the rubble of what once was a large bag of peanuts, sharing stories of the last few months. There's a nice stack of beer cups growing. Conversation thus far has consisted of travel, dating, biz ideas, and the merits of women playing fantasy sports. An outsider sitting around us may have tabbed us as brothers (two tall drinks of water) or maybe friends from childhood. We're not. I've only known Jonathan since last summer, and that virtually. This is actually just the fourth time we've gotten together in person.
133. That's what my Twitter list tells me is the number of Twitter followers I've met in person. Some aided by a conference, other times a meetup, and still others a result of passing through someone's town. Many are acquaintances, some mentors, and others are good friends, but all of them brought together because of Twitter.
We've come a long way since writing letters. Do you remember AOL Instant Messenger? Maybe some of you still use it. I remember the conversations I would often have when it came down to trading AOL Instant Messenger screen names. I was very shy and passive. If you've ever met me, then you know that I've held onto some of those characteristics. I might have stuttered and probably started shaking my leg out of anxiety when a girl asked for my AIM screen name. Now, people can just search for you on Facebook or Twitter and immediately pull up your profile and pretty little avatar. You've chosen your best photo. The one with your favorite shirt that makes you look 10 pounds thinner. In mere moments, from reading someone's Facebook profile or Twitter stream, you can have the information that previously it took three dates to find out. Our lives have almost become an on-going Truman Show.
Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one."
C.S. Lewis had some great things to say about love and friendship, one of which, is the quote above, from The Four Loves. That's how the conversation has started over the last year. It was either sending or receiving a tweet that began with something like: "What? You too?" That's the thing about Twitter. You can have those immediate connections with anyone at any moment and anywhere in the world. It's a never-ending, virtual cocktail party. What's the result? Sometimes an unfollow and maybe a block. However, more practically, it can lead to job opportunities, friendships, and sometimes even romantic relationships.
Cheri Lucas recently did a great series on virtual relationships. In response to Cheri's discussion of nomadic relationships being bittersweet, I responded by saying that my virtual friendships were often amplified, as compared to friendships of the past. It’s like I can fit six months of laughs and stories into three days. When I get with friends like Epstein, it's as if we haven't seen each other in years, and furthermore, we typically don't know when we'll see each other again. There is something about those two notions, that makes that time together so rich.
I honestly take to heart what many people tell me in 140 characters, while taking other things with a grain of salt. Twitter is not the end all, be all. Some people don't find value in it, and if so, shouldn't use it just based on my experiences or because someone tells them to. However, there is one thing about virtual relationships that I'll always hold onto: Virtual relationships are only as strong as the in-person relationships that happen as a result.
Some are acquaintances, others are colleagues, and many are friends. These are my virtual relationships. What has been your experience taking online relationships offline?
Thanks to Jonathan Epstein for the inspiration of this post. He's an excellent example of someone who is successfully forging the virtual with the real world. Jonathan is the President of Celebrated Experiences, creating memorable experiences for travelers to the U.K. and Ireland.