Last weekend in London, on a drizzling Saturday, I made my way to The Fellow, a gastropub near King’s Cross/St. Pancras station. I stepped into its cozy interior and immediately caught the glance of Mike Sowden, the blogger behind Fevered Mutterings who I’ve known primarily as @mikeachim on Twitter. He rose from his chair, and I gave him a hug. I was thrilled to meet him.
Thing is, I didn’t know Mike existed until sometime in 2010. And I don’t really know him.
Or do I?
The Creation of “Online”
My first experience fusing my online world with real life was in my sophomore or junior year of high school (1995-96). I had an America Online screenname, RsrvoirGrl, to dial into a wondrous new universe called the World Wide Web, accessed by dialing a number on my computer. Creating a screenname was a milestone, and it was important to select an appropriate name that best reflected who I was, as I was forging an identity in this new world. In these early years of cyberspace, I went through several screennames—first, slightly different variations of “Reservoir Girl” (a nod to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs), and then more personal screennames, which included parts of my name or birthdate.
Cyberspace was the most incredible new way to spend free time without leaving the house. But I didn’t understand what “online” meant and where, in this virtual realm, I was. All I knew was I could enter “rooms” and talk to other people my age (in teen chat rooms) and with similar interests (mainly film).
After chatting for a while with a boy who lived in Woodland—near Davis, California—we decided to meet in San Francisco one afternoon and both agreed to bring a friend to make the encounter less nerve-wracking. We planned to meet at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. (Naturally.)
I won’t address the details, but let’s just say our spirited, engaging online chats about film, music, and life did not lead to in-the-flesh chemistry. In fact, our in-person conversation was awkward and painful. Oh my god, I thought, staring at him from across the table, as we ate our slices at Escape From New York Pizza. I don’t know this person at all, I don’t want to know him, what am I doing here, let’s run out of this restaurant, help me, this sucks. Unlike today, where avatars are integral parts of social media profiles, in 1995 there were no photos, nor were there detailed profiles of strangers you talked to; all you had to rely on was a chat room transcript and—if your online chats led to phone calls—the sound of the person’s voice, and the vibe you sensed over the phone. Perhaps that was enough. Or not.
I was 15 or 16 at this time, so I gather the encounter, had I been older, could have been different. Still, the idea of the Internet (and the connections created on it) was new for everyone, no matter the age. We were all experimenting, like curious humans plugging into a Matrix.
* * *
After the novelty of chat rooms wore off, and I concluded that online friendships (and subsequent in-person meetups) were superficial, I spent less time chatting with strangers and more time instant messaging with my friends. My best friend Ann and I used to talk on the phone for hours. But for the most part, I have never been fond of long phone conversations, nor am I a talkative person to begin with. Instant messaging on the computer, then, was a welcome form of communication, but not all of my friends interacted online, be it via email or AOL instant messenger. (And even when I was in college, we had no Facebook-like outlet.) At Loyola Marymount University, from 1997 to 2001, some friends simply were not interested in the online world, as abstract as it felt. Most friends could only be reached in the flesh or a landline—landline! An extinct word!—and a few via cell phone. (I was the first in my crew to get a cell phone, in fall 1998.)
The launch of Friendster in 2002 began to define the still-elusive online world. With Friendster, “going online” now meant more than logging on to check email. Friendster was so hot, so hip—friends and friends-of-friends I mingled with in bars and clubs were on it, as well as pseudo-familiar faces and cute guys I’d seen at parties. Going online meant sifting through these profiles on my computer, in private—I learned about people without having to talk to them.
Throw in MySpace in 2003 and 2004, and this online universe was fully developed. It breathed on its own and was separate from real life: I communicated online with people I didn’t hang out with in person. I exchanged friendly messages with acquaintances who ignored me when we ran into one another at a bar. A hierarchy existed, much like the one in real life: the cool kids, the hipsters, the social whores were recognizable by high friend counts, aesthetically pleasing profiles, many testimonials, and clever “About Me” and “Who I’d Like to Meet” sections. I added friends like I was collecting passport stamps; I tweaked my profile HTML to tailor a persona. On every social network I’ve joined, I’ve gone through the same account creation-deletion-creation-deletion cycle: Becoming irritated with the unspoken etiquette (or lack of) among friends. Struggling with how best to present my virtual self. Acclimating to a specific network and its privacy options.
Today, I’ve reached a level of comfort regarding my online persona from all the experimentation, the observation of behavior, and the self-awareness over the years. Perhaps crafting a second, virtual self requires a level of maturity, or is an art to be perfected.
What I can say for sure? It’s taken me years to become comfortable with my virtual projection.
The Evolution of an Avatar
In this age of hashtags, promoted tweets, and DMs, I’m fascinated each day by the tools and practices I must keep up with. We’ve also moved beyond simple first names; you don’t have a name unless you’ve got an @ sign in front of it, right? Along with this comes the strange, amusing comments I find myself making in conversations. Your avatar is awesome. She’s such a great follow. I can’t believe that was trending today. He @replied me yesterday and thanked me for my FF.
Remember the days when we complimented people the old-fashioned way? She’s got killer legs. He’s got big, beautiful eyes. That is sooooo 15 years ago, isn’t it? Today’s ultimate compliment: She’s got a fabulous Twitter stream.
Don’t think I’m poking fun at @eugenephoto (or @legalnomads). In fact, these two people, who I’ve never met in person, are among the most all-around resourceful and intriguing individuals I follow on Twitter, and it’s because of tweets (and digital presences) like theirs that I’ve begun to formulate my ideas on why online connections are significant and—for me—necessary.
I created @cherilucas in spring 2009, but didn’t actively use it. Over at Trazzler, we created regional Twitter accounts in addition to @Trazzler, and I began to share our content on those handles. It wasn’t until fall 2009, when I was invited on Princess Cruises’ #FollowMeAtSea Twitter cruise to the Caribbean, that I had to establish an online persona. From then on—and by default—I began to build my presence, as insignificant as it was, in the online travel industry. (Initially, I followed education publications and personalities, too, as I was a freelance K-12 reporter at the time. But juggling education and travel on a single handle just didn’t work, so I stopped promoting my non-travel work altogether.)
Fast forward to 2010. Given my tendency to grow irked with the social network du jour, I realized my universe on Twitter had become a bubble. Ninety percent of the people I followed were in the travel industry—and not only that, they lived and breathed travel, all day, every day. The active promotion of oneself and peers, and the dedication to the industry and to good writing, is wonderful.
But still, I purged my list. Not because I’m a snob, but because it felt unnatural to read tweets about travel every second of the day, and to eavesdrop on the same talking heads interacting in a flurry of @replies, RTs, FFs, TTs, and LOLs in an airtight sphere, the same ideas swirling about. It felt intrusive being asked to follow someone. Or to “please RT” something. Or to “like” a Facebook page. At first, I thought I was being too critical: Isn’t this virtual? Isn’t this supposed to feel fake to a degree?
No. I don’t think it has to be that way.
What, then, do I want to get out of Twitter? For me, Twitter isn’t focused on the social; it’s certainly not Facebook. Yet it isn’t a sterile, strictly professional platform. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the people I follow, many of whom I’ve never met but am connected to for some reason, whether via Trazzler, travel, nonfiction, San Francisco, or otherwise. I’ve recently paid more attention to less people—individuals who share ideas across many interests, or who share their work (and mine) without expecting automatic reciprocation, or who are clever and wickedly inappropriate, or who are silly and don’t take themselves so damn seriously. In other words, my Twitter universe is now populated with people.
And so I come back to @legalnomads, a travel blogger and former lawyer whom I appreciate because of her diverse tweet topics, from science to photography and literature to astronomy. And through her, I found @eugenephoto, a photographer and blogger also with an array of interests.
And so, what does it mean to have a stellar Twitter stream? Silly as that sounds, it means an individual on Twitter is three-dimensional. It means I sense who this person is from the content they curate. It means I’d feel comfortable plucking their avatar out of my stream, placing them in a seat across from me at a table in the real world, and shooting the shit. It means in lieu of a “BECOME A FAN ON FACEBOOK!” or a Follow Friday tweet crammed with 20 @names, I get a glimpse into a person’s mind: curious and empathetic, thoughtful and funny.
If you use social media in a way that works for you, online connections can be meaningful. After 15 years of dabbling in the online world, I think I’ve finally figured out how to do it.
Avatars in the Flesh
And so, back to London.
I don’t quite recall how I started following @mikeachim on Twitter, but I think it involved a tweet about a movie (Memento? The Usual Suspects?) and a mutual liking for stories that end with abrupt twists. And that’s why I love Twitter: you interact one day with a stranger about something you love or are interested in, and from there, a connection—based on ideas—develops. We are our own curators of multimedia content, sifting through the noise, finding what we like. And in the same vein, we handpick individuals—well, avatars—who we let into our (virtual) lives, to entertain us, to chat with us, to teach us things each day.
So, meeting up with Mike (and Nick Rowlands, another travel writer, whom I hung out with in San Francisco and Las Vegas last year), was a treat on Saturday. Three fine avatars at one table, drinking pints, eating a meal—I tried black pudding!—and laughing a great deal about all sorts of things, travel and non-travel.
* * *
We live in a time where things change so fast—where the definition of “friend” continues to evolve in the age of Facebook.
I ask myself again: do I know Mike?
I may not know Mike in the everyday, traditional sense, but as I sat there and chatted with him and Nick—who has become a good friend—I realized: I know him enough to sit here and not want to run out of the restaurant. I know him enough to laugh at his stories. I know him enough to talk about our hopes and goals for travel, for writing, for the future.
I don’t know about you, but in my worlds—virtual and real—that is a friend.
Other Parts in this Virtual Life Series:
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part II: Facebook, Twitter & the Seeds of Compartmentalization
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part III: Nomadic Relationships
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part IV: On Unplugging & Merging Virtual and Real
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part V: Proximity & Physical Space
- Notes on Virtual Life, Part VI: Facebook Status Updates (And What I Could Have Said)