It's Scary To Meet Your Internet Tribe In Real Life, But Do It Anyway

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/GettyImages

Like so many moms these days, my tribe is online. I used to have a ton of real life mama friends; we bonded over shared parenting philosophies and motherhood. But my online girls are different; we have more in common than our boobs and our baby carriers.

Instead, while we all love our kids, being mamas is only part of who we are. We’re artists. We tend to like the same music, and if we don’t, we educate each other. We share similar political views, and work for social justice causes. We have each other’s backs, and talk about sending glitter envelopes and dog-food cakes to those who cross us. We mourn together and celebrate together. We know who’s having trouble in her marriage and who needs cheering up, who’s celebrating a kindergarten graduation and who’s mourning the passage of time.

Moms with an Internet posse like mine are lucky indeed.

But then, like any internet relationship, someone gets a wild hair up their ass that the friendship should move from the virtual to the actual. This sounds like a great fucking idea at first. Real-life hugs instead of heart emojis! Partying! Massive partying, partying the likes that you have not seen since college! You’ll be able to find out all those details you miss online: who bites her cuticles, who twirls her hair, who can’t get the fuck off her phone. You will recognize each other on sight and know each other’s children’s names and ages. Then you will grab a glass of wine or do a shot together, and it’ll be like you’d known each other forever.

This sounds spectacular, in theory. In reality, you only know these people on the Internet. That means you only know the facade they present on the Internet, and they only know the facade you present on the internet. As The Huffington Post notes, “Strong ties, or close friends … determine how we act on Facebook. In the end, they are who we want to impress, why we keep up with digital appearances.”

What you do online is geared toward impressing these people — the very people you’re about to meet in real life. So what have you done that’s not true to yourself, and what happens when they figure that out?

Because you are not your authentic self online. As The Huffington Post points out, “While not every post is necessarily positive, we certainly limit what negative things viewers can see.” Moreover, it makes us feel good to think about the stuff we’re presenting to our Facebook network of strong ties – probably because it’s all the on-message stuff. Even if it’s not necessarily good, it’s somehow contributing to the image of ourselves that we want to portray.

There are scads of tiny details we don’t show online, the kinds that people might find totally annoying. How do you get ready in the morning? What weirdness do you engage in? For instance, I run through an elaborate makeup ritual while listening to (and singing along to) Hamilton. Loudly. And it’s one thing for your friend to know you have certain issues – anxiety, depression, ADHD – and another for them to actually see you get sad, space out, interrupt everyone, leap from topic to topic, or stare obsessively at your phone while they’re talking to you.

And just as you’re not the same person you present on Facebook, neither are your friends. The New York Times, in an essay about digital connection, says that, “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.”

In reality, you fear that you don’t know these people as deeply as you think you do. “The internet can be an outlet for people who feel like they can’t do or say certain things in person because there’s nobody to judge them,” Odyssey Online says. What if the person you know online doesn’t behave the same way in person?

Mostly, of course, the deep fear isn’t that you won’t like them. You worry that you’ll meet your online friends and they won’t like you. You worry that those “sips” of your self cast you in one light, while the reality of you is a different thing altogether.

But take heart. The Guardian reassures us: “It seems clear that our various online personas are all digital breadcrumbs of the same persona; different symptoms of our same core self.”

So it’s likely that our online friends, in real life, are at least partly the same person they present online. And the same applies to you.

So you can quit worrying — if you get along online, you’re probably going to get along in real life. So swallow that fear, order that plane ticket, and get ready to party like it’s 1999. Or craft and drink like it’s 2017.

And remember: your friends are probably as worried, and as weird, as you are.