Why is there a stigma about meeting people online?

Steve DeLassus just made a funny observation to me. He said when he talks about me, sometimes people consider meeting and communicating with people online as somehow abnormal. And they tell him via e-mail.
My coworker, Murel, has told me several times that when he was my age, the last place he would want to say he met someone was in a bar. Without making any moral judgments, I would rate the likelihood of me meeting someone in a bar and finding the right stuff for a serious, long-term relationship as very low. There are numerous qualities and values on my must-have list that you’re just not very likely to find in that kind of environment. And most of the things on my can’t-stand list that are very easy to find there.

But what’s the stigma about meeting people online? Steve DeLassus and I met on a bulletin board back in 1989 or 1990. We both had Commodores and modems, and it was summertime and we had time on our hands. The closest thing we had to the Internet in our homes those days was CompuServe. People who didn’t want to pay for CompuServe dialed into BBSs instead. I have one other friend from that timeframe that I talk to at all, and that’s about once a year. But Steve’s been one of my best friends for a very long time.

I met Dan Bowman online. I fired off a rant to Jerry Pournelle about alternative operating systems, and–these were the days when one could post an e-mail address on a Web site without fear of having 250 spam messages in your inbox the next day–Dan replied to me. And we quickly found some common ground. Dan noticed that at the time I was working for a Lutheran organization, and his dad was Lutheran. The result was, once again, a lasting and very valuable friendship.

It’s true that online you can pretend to be othing that you’re not, but it’s hard. Eventually the truth comes out. Some people are fooled for a long time, but every relationship I’ve made online that later fell apart, whether it was of romantic nature or strictly friendship, had one thing in common: My initial impression of the person was slightly wrong.

Funny. When I think of relationships that started in the physical world that fell apart, the same thing is true.

Now, some people are better at talking and listening than they are at reading. As a journalist, I had to be able to look at available information and take educated guesses about what was missing. No, not so I could print those along with the facts, but so I could go and find the rest of the story. As a computer tech, I’m constantly faced with solving problems for which there is little information. I can tell a lot about a person by their writing style and by the questions they ask me. Talking on the phone and later meeting in person tells me some more, but for me, that’s the optimal order.

And it’s easier for me to open up in writing than it is to just talk. It’s easier for me to be real and transparent and honest with someone I barely know when I’m not watching their expression or hearing their voice. Once I’m comfortable with the person, we can talk, but it’s pretty obvious when I get into an uncomfortable situation, and my discomfort can tend to overshadow anything that I might say. Plus, in writing, it matters a lot less how long it takes me to find the right words to say what I’m thinking.

For someone who’s a better listener than reader, the optimal order may be different. That doesn’t make this new way of doing things any less valid.

One thought on “Why is there a stigma about meeting people online?

  • June 14, 2003 at 10:28 am
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    Lots of thoughtful points here. I often struggle to find the right word to refer to someone I know and interact with online vs. “meatspace” (that phrase has always made me chuckle ๐Ÿ˜‰ You, Scot Hacker, Dr. Pournelle, and Eugenia Loli over at OSNews are all people whose weblogs & other work I read regularly and who I enjoy corresponding with. Yet I haven’t met any of you in person.

    In some ways I “know” you, but not like we hang out at the frozen custard place and shoot the bull. Although if I ever get to do that drive along old Route 66 I’d like, I might try to look you up in St. Louis ๐Ÿ™‚

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