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Turning Online Friends into Real-Life Friends

Not that long ago, my mother still looked at me with a deer-in-headlights look when I said the word “blog.” She knew I was working for a web company, and she knew what the internet and email were, but blogs were just something she’d heard someone mention on NPR – she didn’t actually know what one was.

While Mom’s still not a blog-reader, she at least knows what they are now. The new thing that I can’t quite explain to her is Twitter. Although she has (again) heard them talk about it on NPR, she has no earthly idea what it is. So when I read something on Twitter, I tell my mom I read it on a blog. That way she knows it’s something online, but she doesn’t want to know anything more than that.

Which is why I’m sure she’d raise an eyebrow (at the very least) if I told her how I’d spent the last two days in Rome. On Friday night, I met up with a couple I’d never laid eyes on before, but one of whom I’d interacted extensively with via Twitter and email. We had a lovely long dinner on a tiny side-street not far from the Campo dei Fiori, talking non-stop until after midnight.

On Saturday night, I met another Twitter friend I’d never seen before for a drink atop a posh hotel in Rome’s city center in their rooftop bar. Again, we chatted easily, enjoying the spectacular early evening weather and the views overlooking the outskirts of Rome. After our drinks, we made our way to an apartment being rented by yet another pair of Twitterers none of us had met before, where they were hosting a meetup of foodies – expats in Italy and travelers alike – most of whom had only interacted previously on Twitter and perhaps via email.

What struck me most about both evenings wasn’t how odd it was to be making plans to meet up and spend time with these “internet friends” sight-unseen, as it were, but how easily we all got along. The conversation on both nights was buzzing – there were no awkward pauses, no inquiries about the weather, no desperate attempts to find another person to talk to. We all got along really well, and it felt more like we were enjoying the company of old friends than just meeting each other for the first time.

It wasn’t long ago that you’d still hear scare stories about weird online stalkers haunting the chatrooms of teenagers – middle-aged men pretending to be 12-year-old girls and the like. So what makes the interactions I’ve been having with these “online friends” feel less like something I should be wary of? Has something changed?

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I do feel like there’s been a shift. While I and many of my friends have always been the same people in real life as we are on the internet, I feel like that’s more the norm now rather than the exception. The people I met this weekend in Rome were, to a person, exactly who I expected them to be based on their online personas. Sure, there were moments of, “Oh, I thought you’d be taller,” or “Wow, it’s weird to actually hear your voice finally,” but the personalities matched up with what I’d been anticipating.

Perhaps we’re more honest with our online presences these days, thanks to things like Facebook encouraging real names and Twitter making it possible to interact with people more directly. It’s possible the people I interact with online are still the exception and the idea of cloaking one’s identity on the internet is still de rigeur for most. But I doubt it.

I’m really glad I made the quick trip down to Rome this weekend to turn a whole bunch of my online friends into real-life friends, and I look forward to many more opportunities to do so again in the future.

And for those of you keeping track, yes – I was the Community Manager for BootsnAll’s fabulous online travel community for more than two years, during which time I turned lots of online friends into real-life friends at BnA parties… But scattered among the many great people I met (online & off) were the attention-seeking and generally annoying trolls who seemed to come with the territory (they know who they are). What strikes me as interesting about some of the people I’ve met online in the last year or so is that I don’t find the trolls to be ubiquitous anymore. Which is, to me, a good thing.