I’ve never really had a normal, we-met-through-friends/work/school relationship history. In fact, my first serious relationship was with a guy I met online, and it’s how I ended up living on the other side of the country. Back then, in 2000, I spent many hours in online chatrooms – the kind that existed before there were actual chat software and apps like Skype. Yes, I was a MIRC lurker and moderator for 5FM’s chat channel, however much praise that’s worth. The seedy underbelly of instant relay chat could not have been more frowned upon or weird back then, so you can imagine the shocked reactions we used to get when telling people how we met. I found it interesting though, talking to people from all over, each of us hiding behind handles (not door handles, kids, online nicknames). We’ve come a long way since then, with a lot of people today turning to social media because their lives are too busy or social circles too small to meet new people.
Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about online dating and whether it’s an acceptable form of meeting a partner or if it’s a weirdo’s fantasmagorium of exploration. I find it funny, and a bit interesting and perplexing, because a lot of articles have surfaced which justify finding a partner online, based on behavioural algorithms and the ability to search by interest, age, and even income bracket. The whole idea that meeting people and finding meaningful relationships or friendships can now be narrowed down with cold, hard science and statistics, honestly scares me a bit. It makes the hollow of quick dismissal and instant gratification through apps like Tinder and most dating sites feel all the more shallow and non-empathetic. To me, putting a percentage of compatibility on someone is the equivalent of trying to put a price on a human life. No amount of personal bio information can really give you a clue of whether you’ll like the person, in person.
So, nearly fifteen years down the line (on and off over the years), here are some constants I’ve learned about the process of meeting people online and how it impacts or changes when you meet them in person:
1. You’re going to have the same initial conversations over and over.
I can pretty much predict how the typical flow of conversation and covered topics go when meeting someone online. You go through this initial phase where you figure out if they can make you think, laugh, feel curious…whatever it is you need to invest more time in them. And most of the time you’ll find that not much comes of it and you move on to the next person, repeating the process again. The difference between meeting them online versus in real life, is you don’t spend money on drinks, dinner or coffee, you don’t get dressed up. You also aren’t forced to look them in the eyes and maintain a conversation for longer than you feel comfortable, since you have the convenience of merely closing the chat the moment things don’t interest you anymore. This is the first of a few double-edged swords when it comes to online meeting.
2. You’re probably going to cyber stalk them to some degree. Admit it.
Everyone from people at work to your best friends have embraced the power of social media to dig deeper and find out more about people before meeting them. It’s actually been defended as a way of ‘protecting yourself’ or ‘preparing yourself’ in case they have some skeletons and it’s nowhere near Halloween time of the year. Chances are good that they’re doing the same to you. Creepy? Yeah, maybe a bit. But again, this is why you shouldn’t display your whole life online, unless you’re happy to have anyone know all about you. It’s human nature to be curious though and even when we’re not aware of it, we feel an inherent need to be prepared for what is coming. It’s why we have flights of imagination – whether they are idealistic dreams or fearful thoughts – about anything new and unknown. Going to new places, meeting new people, starting new jobs. We do this in attempt to be more prepared for when it actually happens.
3. The pictures don’t make the person or tell the whole story.
If you’re following some gym fanatic with bulges in every place you desire bulges to be, and then some, you wouldn’t be blamed for developing a bit of a crush every now and then. However, unless you want nothing more than a mute gun-show facilitator in your life every day, you might find your interest in them dwindling or plummeting, soon after meeting them. I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure people who spend 4-6 hours of their day either training or eating and the other 8 taking selfies of themselves, probably don’t have a lot else going on in their lives. Love Playboy bunnies? Great! Just don’t expect them to recite Plato at any given moment in time if you ever meet them in person. These are the more outrageous examples but for general reference, try bear the following in mind: Instagram filters. Photoshop. Samsung’s sneaky Beauty Face filter. Low level lighting. The possibility that the photo is from 4 years ago and some things with them have, uh, gone down since then. Ahem.
4. You’ll get to know a great deal about them, before you even meet them.
Notice I said ‘about’…you don’t actually get to know the person on a non-fact-sheet-based level. The funny thing is that online interaction lets some people share parts of themselves they wouldn’t have talked about in person, at first. You get to learn about their siblings, parents, pets, some random stuff at work. Maybe you’ll even get to know their bigger secrets or deepest wishes. You learn these things because it’s easier for people to be open when there isn’t that pressure of being in the same room as the other person. They feel safe, knowing that they can just click to exit the app or chatroom and never need to worry about the conversation again, if it doesn’t go down well. You learn all of these things, en masse, yet the simple things that make up their entirety and character, fall away. You don’t ever learn what drives them nuts on a frequent basis, you don’t know how they respond to surprises or stress, you don’t know if they’ll smile at you with appreciation if you bring them coffee or if how open and sincere they are most of the time. You’ll have information, but not a lot of observational understanding, which means a much less accurate progressive feeling about them and if they’re actually right for you.
5. Never put all your bets on a person before you actually meet them in real life.
I don’t care how perfect they may seem online and how many chats until 3AM you’ve had about life and your dreams. Stop yourself from going all Tom Cruise and planning your wedding or telling everyone you know you’ve found ‘the one’. Keep that stuff locked up tight until you’ve spent a good amount of real time, having real food and sharing real, mutual oxygenated air together. A funny thing happens in that crevice that divides the virtual person from the real one. You may think it’ll be an easy transition to meet them for coffee after weeks of chatting online, maybe completely flawless even, but often times you’d realize you were so wrong. That disparity, that really weird space between who and what you see online and who and what you see in person, can be pretty much of atom-splitting proportions on a personal level. I’ve met people online who I hit it off with instantly and thought we’d be friends forever. Then I met them in person and we’d sit in awkward silence, discussing the weather and being halfway between trying too hard to make conversation flow, and trying to figure out how to politely end the whole meeting and re-contemplate your entire life in the aftermath. On the flip side though, I’ve met people in person who I really doubted I’d get along with at all initially, yet the moment I met them, a whole new level of radiance, intelligence and compassion surfaced that was never obvious from what I saw online.
6. The person you’re dating probably isn’t a carbon copy of who they are online.
For whatever reason – whether they are deliberately selective about what they share, or if they just think and act different in person – a lot of the time you see a side of them online that either vastly enhances or completely conflicts with the person sitting next to you, eating popcorn and watching TV. It’s understandable if they are professionals who need to maintain an image online, or if they simply prefer not to share much online. Becoming aware of this rift between online and personal behaviour raised my semi-paranoia about the reality that you never really know if the person you see every day is, in their spare time, a serial killer or cross dresser. I never saw a greater disparity than with one guy I dated, who was highly philosophical online but dead silent in person. All the things he couldn’t express in person, he put on his social pages, including his doubts about his relationship with me. On a related note: never, ever express online what you can’t express in person. It doesn’t really make for a strong character or garner respect. We all want to show the better sides of ourselves to the world, it’s normal, but if you find the two personas are not at all the same person, you have valid reason to be concerned. Also, bear in mind that people don’t always type and talk in the same tone or reveal the same information – online activity gives people a chance to consider how they’ll react and what they’ll say, while real life tends to strip people of that restraint. Trust what you see in person, your gut is remarkably good at detecting what you don’t really want to see or think about someone.
7. Don’t let meeting your partner online cheat you out of getting to know them in person.
Something weird happens with dating someone you met online. Sometimes, there’s a feeling that the hard work has been done and you can relax now. Sort of like how many people say spouses slack off once they’re married because they feel they’ve reached the goal of finding someone and settling down. With online connections, you’ve probably spent countless hours talking and sharing endless amounts of thoughts, which tends to make you think it’s cemented the two of you securely enough to carry on having a life together. After all, you know the other person’s hopes, dreams, pet hates, passions, and you two agree about most things. I tend to think initially meeting online, especially if there have been long conversations before meeting, cheats you out of getting to know your partner once you are actually together in person. You almost feel as though there isn’t much left to talk about or ask once you’ve covered all those late night conversations. I ended up in a long-term relationship with a man who I honestly never knew at all, and neither of us ever tried to learn more about each other, we just carried on living, but together. If I could give some advice: keep the big conversations for when you’re sharing dinner together, not wolfing down crisps while staring at your respective laptop screens at 2AM. And if you’ve already crossed that line, be sure to have those conversations again in person, every once in a while, because people grow and their minds, personalities and opinions change over time.
8. Don’t become a fisherman just because you’re suddenly in an ocean full of fish.
This one coincides with a lot of things that worry me about how we live these days. We are, without a doubt, a society that has succumbed to immediate supply and demand satisfaction. With the arrival of social media and the ease of meeting new people whenever your phone has battery life and good signal strength, people seem to think of others as easily disposable and replaceable. It’s far too easy to give up on someone just because you know there are so many others out there who will pay you more attention, give you that feeling of excitement again, grant you that satisfaction of knowing you do still have some game and are still attractive…at least initially. Divorce rates and breakups are skyrocketing with the combination of social media opportunities and the acceptance of having multiple partners or annulling a marriage. Unless you’re a very shallow person, you won’t find satisfaction in this way of life. Remember that you are dealing with people, individual minds and personalities, not tissues out of a Kleenex box. There’s merit in taking your time and putting in effort.
Empires would never have been built if people stuck to building mud huts and rebuilding them whenever there’s heavy rain.
As a final thought…