Thursday, February 4, 2010

Imaginary Friends

Last Saturday my family and I had lunch with some of our imaginary friends. This is about the fourth or fifth time that I've done this, and honestly I've never had it go badly.

"Imaginary Friends" (in this context) refers to people whom you know online - possibly quite well - but whom you've never met in person. This is actually a surprisingly large percentage of the people I know and interact with. Then, in some cases, I meet them, and they become... What? Post-imaginary? ("I'm a real boy!")

I realize that we're all supposed to be afraid of people we meet on the internet, because they could be stalkers or rapists or axe-murderers or Episcopalians or something. (Being an axe-murderer myself, I don't worry much about things like that; but that's what I'm told. I'll even grant that in some scenarios, caution is perfectly justified.) In this case, however, we were members of what might be considered an online community - that is, we'd been corresponding over an extended period of time, in the comments of several different-but-related blogs. So while there was always some possibility that someone would be very different in person, it just wasn't very likely.

I have a theory that while it's far, far easier to be more unpleasant on the Internet than you are in real life, it's much, much harder to be more pleasant on the Internet than you are in real life - at least, over an extended period of time. So far, testing seems to support the hypothesis: everyone I know to be consistently pleasant online has turned out to be equally enjoyable in real life, too. (I've never tested the converse: if someone is unpleasant online, I have no desire to meet them in real life.)

There are basically two things to keep in mind here. First of all, communities do form (and evolve, and sometimes dissolve) online; and these connections are, in their way, just as valid as any others. Second, every time I've agreed to meet imaginary friends, it has been a matter of a group gathering - an extension of the online community - rather than just two individuals meeting. I suspect (though I don't have data) that the latter scenario offers a lot more potential for people to misrepresent themselves, try to charm or deceive potential victims, and generally set up dangerous situations. That said, I also suspect that a lot of the warnings I used to hear were out of proportion to the actual dangers.

Anyway, this was a lot of fun. Counting my wife and child, six of us met in the Londoner in Addison (a suburb of North Dallas), and spent at least two hours chatting and swapping stories. The excuse... erm, the occasion... was to welcome the Accidental Historian to D/FW. (He was moving down from Chicago, following his job.) I wouldn't absolutely swear that a good time was had by all, but everyone present certainly seemed to enjoy the occasion.

Good food, good company, good whiskey. What could possibly go wrong?

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