I’m going to take a brief departure from discussing libraries to talk about an interesting experience I had over the weekend. It got me thinking about how we connect (or don’t) on the Internet and I felt compelled to write about it.
Last Friday night I was walking to a friend’s place for a dinner party, and heading in the opposite direction was a guy with one leg, walking with crutches. This guy turned out to be none other than Josh Sundquist—Paralympic athlete, bestselling author, motivational speaker, and YouTuber. I stopped and said, “Oh my God, are you Josh Sundquist?!” He was, and we had a really nice conversation before going our separate ways. I was very excited about the chance encounter, and was already mentally sketching the story I would tell my friends over dinner.
Minutes after I walked into my friend’s apartment, I was taken aback by a second chance encounter. I was introduced to (among others) a guy—let’s call him R—who a mutual friend had set me up with. He had meant to get in touch with me that week, but did not do so, and here I was meeting him for the first time through a completely different mutual friend. Rather than addressing the fact that we had been set up, we awkwardly ignored that fact and soldiered on, and ended up having a pleasant evening.
As I walked home after dinner, it struck me how odd the contrast was between these two random meetings. When I met Josh Sundquist, it was not at all strange that I recognized him, even though we had never met or spoken. By posting videos about his life on YouTube, Josh has come to expect this type of recognition (see his great video “Being YouTube Famous”). During our conversation, he asked me how I found out about him/his channel, whether I watched a lot of YouTube, etc. The whole interaction was framed by the online community created by his videos and other content, and we felt free to point to those constructs as a reason for interacting IRL.
On the other hand, when I met R (who I had also never spoken to before), it felt wrong to say, “Oh I know you, you’re the guy who I was supposed to go on a blind date with but never emailed me!” Not that I would have put it that way, but that was initially what came to mind. And yet this internet-sanctioned relationship did not carry over into our real-life interaction the way it did with Josh Sundquist. I thought about how common it is for us to learn something about a friend through their Facebook posts or tweets, and how we would almost never bring up those facts in a conversation with that person. And if they do mention that same information, rather than saying “Yeah, I saw that on your [social networking site],” we feign ignorance and smile and nod as if learning this information for the first time!
Isn’t the whole point of social networking to allow us to connect with other people across time and space? Who makes the rules for how much our online interactions bleed into our offline interactions? And is all this “connecting” actually bringing us closer to each other, or simply putting up more walls?
In a fitting conclusion to the events of Friday night, both R and Josh Sundquist contacted me through social media a few days later. Josh reposted and responded graciously to my tweet about meeting him, mentioning that he had visited this very Tumblr; R added me as a friend on Facebook. But I still felt like something was lacking. The socially acceptable response to these real-life interactions was to reconnect on the Internet. Despite the tangible messages on my screen, they still felt worlds away from the real conversations I had that weekend. I am thankful for the amazing ability to initiate and continue conversations online—I just hope they don’t get in the way of live conversations.