One third of 15 to 18-year-olds have met up with someone they met online in real life, according to a recent survey by BBC Newsbeat. It’s the kind of research probably intended to make parents shudder and double lock the front door, but for some of us a decade older (hello) and just as tech-crazed, it’s almost surprising the figure isn’t higher.
While the safety of teenagers is never going to stop being a concern (or adults either for that matter), it’s a mistake to tar all online encounters with the same ‘evil predator’ or ‘lonely creep’ brushes we reached for 10 years ago. In 2007 a study announced that social networks didn’t help us make ‘real’ friends, but I dispute that now and I’d have disputed it then too.
Because here’s the thing: online is ‘real’. Thinking of the digital realm as a separate entity from flesh-and-blood life, like a red sock finding its way into a whites wash, just doesn’t make sense anymore – if it ever did. No more than ‘real’ women only being the ones over a size 12, or UKIP MEPs on Question Time referring to ‘real people’ in northern towns (within the M25 we’re all just puffs of vapour wearing bowling hats).
I have loads of friends I’ve met online. Heaps. Proper friends too, not the kinds you share one awkward latte with then spend a year afterwards dodging weekly invitations to go to their life drawing class. Good, reliable, three-dimensional friends. When the inevitable “so how do you two know each other?” question is posed some people still look at us curiously, the way you might if we’d replied “prison!” or “we both breed African land snails!”, but for the most part our digital acquaintances have translated easily and happily into common-or-garden friendship.
Next year I’ll be a bridesmaid for a friend I met on Twitter. Two more close friends are marrying men THEY met on Twitter. Love and like are alive and well in 140 characters or less – and, exactly the same argument I use to evangelise about online dating, don’t digital encounters just seem like sensible maths? How logical is it to be wary of a friendship forged through jokes and debate on a social platform, but expect arbitrary measures like being born on the same street, working in the same office or drinking in the same pub to produce our BFFs instead?
‘I like the idea of making new friends and having lots of jolly pals for chats, but I’m dead lazy, so meeting people on the internet was always a no brainer for me,’ says writer Daisy Buchanan, Twitter bride-to-be and one of my favourite IRL conversions. ‘Basically, I want to get the measure of someone before I work out whether they’re worth showering for.’
My friend Ashley Fryer agrees on the power of numbers, saying: ‘social media is so massive that it’s actually hard not to find smart, like-minded people out there.’ She began organising AWOT (Awesome Women of Twitter) meet-ups in 2011, after making online friends that were definitely worthy of a shower. ‘I had built up this amazing circle of female friends that I felt really close to, but hadn’t met,’ she says. ‘We all seemed to know each other – it was like a big group of smart, funny women that were by and large on the same page and it seemed mad to me that I wasn’t meeting them for brunch every weekend.’
Ashley also met her fiancé, Jack, on Twitter, through mutual friends and a shared obsession with cheesecake. ‘I knew Jack was smart and funny from the conversations I could see unfolding over Twitter and it was the perfect basis for going on a date – I felt like I knew him a little bit already. In some ways Twitter was our first date,’ she says. Which is a lot less committal than going for a burrito, when you think about it.
But it’s not all sweetness and retweets, naturally. ‘I’ve met some people that I’ve loved on Twitter and couldn’t stand IRL,’ Ashley admits, though Daisy reckons about 95 per cent of her tweetups have been successful. ‘Five per cent of the time, you get someone who just stares at their shoes, or clearly thinks flesh and blood encounters are inferior to the online version. But you’re not going to get on with everyone you meet at the office or in the pub, either – in my experience, the hit rate is much better online.’
Anyone looking to try turning digi friendships into IRL ones will likely have a few questions before leaping in. Chiefly, WHAT ABOUT THE AWKWARDNESS? Can any lifelong companionship be worth the colossal, teeth-squeaking awkwardness of asking a follower out on a friendship date? What do you even SAY? ‘Shall we take this… offline?’ BLARGH.
‘I did it a couple of times when I was younger, in the days of Bebo, and it was always, always awkward,’ says shinyshiny’s Sadie Hale, ‘I guess it takes a while to get used to the inorganicness of the situation.’
In my experience, events are the easiest, gentlest way to do face-to-face without having to summon up enough scintillating chat for three rounds of drinks. Book talks, comic conventions, comedy nights, whatever your jam is; they provide ample conversation starters, plus the reassurance that you’ll be able to spend at least half of the time staring straight ahead without talking.
Follow Ashley’s lead and plan a group event (so you’ll have buffers if you hit a conversational wall), or just meet the awkwardness head-on with a simple ‘we should have a drink!’ and see how many hours/days they take to respond. And of course, be safe. Tell a friend, meet somewhere public, leave if you feel uncomfortable and all that jazz.
Creeps and criminals aside, there’s still the worry that people might not be who they appear to be; that they’ll be less funny or personable or, frankly, well-written than they are online. I’m sure I am all three. But most of the time their digital personality is still there IRL, it’s just partially submerged beneath shyness – so give it a little time before you call false advertising and try to claim a refund.
Plus, the flipside is that social can expose more of shy people than you might see in the average setting (I don’t mean dick pics). ‘I’ve never made a whole new friend via social media, but I have definitely extended friendships,’ says shinyshiny’s Ashley Snell. ‘It gives you more chance to get to know somebody’s personality and find common ground. There are friends of friends I’ve come to like much more through seeing their online personas.’
So rather than dismissing online friendships as shallow or sinister, maybe we need to see them as a different medium with their own kind of beauty – like pastels vs oil painting, or an electro cover version of an acoustic classic. Some friendships work better in one medium, some work equally well in either, but they both have their own merit. And if you’d like more analogies of that calibre, only with more mumbling, we can continue this chat down the pub.
Main image: Paulo Otavio Diniz Rodrigue’s Flickr