My terrific online friend is terrible in person!

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 12, 2005

How can someone so special on the Internet be such a drag in real life?


Dear Cary,

I have this friend. Let’s call her Susan. Susan and I became friends online several years ago, through mutual (in person) friends. For several years, we had a deep and magical friendship, what I might call a “life of the mind” friendship. We wrote letters and e-mails and had long phone calls. We supported each other through difficult times. Occasionally we met in one city or another for the weekend, but mostly her day-to-day life was something I heard about but didn’t participate in.

Now Susan is getting married, and I am involved in the wedding. Steadily I am being drawn into her “real life,” meeting her friends and family, and hearing endless wedding details.

At first I was happy to be part of the reality of her world. After all, she is my friend, right? But I’ve been discovering that my “life of the mind” friend is a very different person in, well, person. At a distance, she is thoughtful and philosophical. In person, she needs constant attention and tending. My husband and I have discovered that we really don’t like her husband-to-be, and we’re not looking forward to spending more time with him.

I’m worried that my disenchantment with her wedding is becoming more apparent, and that I will sadden her day by not being the happy spaniel she expects me to be.

But here’s the nub of my problem: I miss my friend. Can I go back to being a “life of the mind” friend? Should I try to explain all the things she does that drive me batty, and try to grow the in-person friendship into being more like the virtual one? Or should I just give it up for a bad job and fade out of her life after the wedding?

Disillusioned Friend

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Dear Disillusioned,

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it acts as a space into which we can project an imaginary or secondary self, one more congruent with our own values, more thoughtful, more articulate, more honest.

There are many reasons for this — the relative newness of the medium (we have not been conditioned since birth to cloak our identities there, to adopt a narrow mode of discourse suited to the demands of the classroom and the corporation); the privacy it affords us (we sit alone at a keyboard; our faces are hidden); and the positive feedback loop it engenders (the personas we project are greeted as actual beings). For many of us, conduct on the Internet retains an element of idealistic play; we are not there strictly for profit, but in order to be who we are, or who we would be if we could be who we dream ourselves to be — the Internet acts as a vast stage upon which we strut like eager children, free of the constant gravity of circumstance, free to be, for a short time, the people we feel we were meant to be.

Of course, offline we remain the same shoddy, unkempt, short-tempered, disorganized persons we always were, living in close, overheated rooms that smell of cat litter and rancid butter, shuffling about looking for the toenail clippers, muttering about Karl Rove and steroids in baseball.

In meeting her family and friends, it’s almost as if you have seen something you weren’t supposed to see — look in that window there, that’s your friend, isn’t it, sitting at that cluttered kitchen table, picking at a zit, eating mayonnaise straight out of the jar?

We are so cruel. Our first thought is not, Is it not ever thus? but … You are such a disappointment in real life! We take it almost as a betrayal, forgetting that quite the opposite is true: Here is a person who has made something finer of herself than what her crude circle requires; she has gone as far beyond it as she can go — in her mind, with her wits, with her soul. We might admire what a Herculean task it was in the first place to rise above all that dull and heavy circumstance of town and family and school.

This goes deeper. Inwardly we are so much richer and better, we are capable of so much more; we are princesses abandoned at birth; we are supermen concealing our powers behind mild-mannered anonymity. It might be said that what some people project onto the Internet is not only a heightened, idealized self but in fact a kind of divine self. I do not think anyone ever lives up to such ideals; most people never even reveal them. It is in fact a tribute to the Internet that it allows so many people to reveal so much.

So my advice to you is to make the best of the situation with the wedding; do not attempt to reconcile the contradictions you are seeing. Do your best to be a cheerful and helpful member of the wedding party. If you need an outlet, a way to process the strange feeling of disconnect between your online friend and your embodied friend, I suggest you keep a journal of this experience. It is, after all, a fascinating thing. But I don’t mean an online journal. I mean a personal journal.

For certain relationships — chiefly ones destined to become romantic — the Internet acts simply as a gateway; the “real” relationship only matures after two people begin meeting in person. But other relationships, friendships, the “life of the mind,” are perhaps better if they live out their entire lives in the Internet space. Your friendship may be one of those.

So once the wedding is over, I suggest you resume your online relationship as if nothing had ever happened.

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