March 20, 2002

Face-to-Face for the First Time

Do I Know You?

Inside each one of us, laid out like a grid, is a network of complementary, anatomical, psychological, hormonal, and linguistic structures, which in turn allow us to function—I’m paraphrasing Dr. Kai here—within a larger social system made up of its own equivalent and parallel structures, and somewhere within this mesh of inner grid and outer grid lie those gray, baggy pockets of indeterminancy which we call human behavior. My own behavior had been very gray.

Mr. Statler in Robert Cohen’s Oscillations

How does one describe their first f2f? Is it like recounting one’s first kiss? Face-to-face, for those of you in the real world, is how we of the virtual realm refer to a meeting in the physical sense. And the first time you actually come in real contact with someone you’ve known online, it’s a special moment. But how to describe it? It all depends. As with kisses, there are variants.

horoscopeLast weekend I attended the SXSW new media interactive conference in Austin. I “knew” no one, yet I had numerous friendships and acquaintances with many who were there. It’s always fun to see friends you haven’t seen for a long time. But what about friends you’ve never seen?

As I moved through the main corridor between sessions that first day I felt quite vulnerable walking back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth alone. But my uncomfortable feeling was mitigated by my anonymity. No one knew who I was so no one noticed me and I could stealthily observe. I literally couldn’t tell who my friends were. But the voyeur in me enjoyed watching others interact. Were they meeting for the first time too or were they old friends, previously identified and marked in previous encounters? Could I actually be enjoying this taut psychological balancing act?

Upon first meeting, some people are exactly as you’ve come to know them online. Some are not as they seem. And some think they come across very differently than they really are. It was comforting to realize this mimiked human nature in the real world.

It’s somewhat like meeting a movie star. You “know” them. Or you think you do. With online friends you hope their online personae match the ones you are about to encounter. But like meeting film icons it’s not always safe to assume they are the sum of their film roles.

I once waited on Bobby Darin when I worked in the camera department of the May Company. Bobby Darin. I knew him. I certainly knew who he was. But when he paid for his film with a check, I asked to see his driver’s license, just as I did for everyone I waited on. I acted as if I didn’t KNOW him. And he didn’t counter by singing Mac the Knife (although that would have been proof enough). I ignored his celebrity. The transition to the real was complete.

What do you talk about when you first meet your online familiars? With my first f2f encounter of the day we picked up right from where we left off in our last email exchange. I looked at his conference badge and saw his eyes lower as he searched for mine. His look was delivered smoothly and effortlessly. I almost missed his glance it was so facile. And I could only hope mine was equally fluent. Why doesn’t someone just invent special glasses that display a person’s name in large block letters on their forehead. Seen only by the observer, it would make meeting like this a more pleasant task.

Without missing a beat I asked him if he’d lost his job. He nodded. I told him I was sorry. It was a seamless transition. As simple as I’ve encountered. But I still felt like I’d gone through a Trekian transporter during a minor fluctuation in the transporter beam. You’re “here” but you’ve just been “there.”

I waited for my next encounter. Here it was. Again, the conference tag glance. But this time our mutual recognition yielded only a brief handshake. She turned back to her conversation. I was naked and slowly stepped backwards as if that would clothe and protect me.

Suddenly, I was back in junior high. It was the first day of the year and I was the new kid. I guess having your first kiss, uh, f2f under your belt doesn’t make it any easier. I remembered being voted most introverted in my high school senior class. No wait. It wasn’t most introverted, it was most pessimistic. How did that memory come out so misshapen?

Prophetically, the man sitting next to me on the plane out was reading Robert Cohen’s Oscillations, a short story about a man who loses his ability to speak coherently. Whenever he talks everything he says is incomprehensible to everyone but himself. Office calls are surreptitiously rerouted to other agents and anniversary toasts end as long, unadulterated babbles. I suddenly found myself wondering if this condition might be contagious.

My airplane neighbor was right at the part where our unfortunate protagonist, Mr. Statler, has just checked himself into an “institute” for evaluation and testing. Dr. Kai is delivering his diagnosis:

The term we employ for a condition like yours is an intention tremor…What I am saying is that your ability to process phonetic and semantic information is not organically impaired. You are for example able to understand what I am saying right now, are you not?

In the same way you are able, phonetically, to communicate, to be understood. You have simply chosen, on some unconscious level, not to. This is the oscillation of semantic intent we must correct.

I felt myself turning an indeterminate shade of gray.

I retreated to the safety of a panel discussion about to start. While I waited I looked around and thought I spotted the name tag of another online acquaintance. I LOVED his writing. He found a way to be human in under a hundred words a post. Now that’s talent! We had corresponded some and I had posted comments to his online journal.

Apparently undaunted by my last encounter, I went up to him and introduced myself. He gestured reserved recognition but I ignored it I loved his writing so. I was effusive, unabashed and unprotected. Obviously, I’d forgotten who I was. Now, all the while in this physical space your mind is actively seeking equilibrium. You’re trying to form coherent thoughts while simultaneously controlling your exterior persona. Unlike my previous encounter this one was not so clear cut. He didn’t turn to his neighbor to continue an interrupted conversation. He simply stopped speaking.

I almost started babbling to fill in the silence when I was mercifully interrupted by the moderator’s opening remarks. I slipped back to my seat. But my mind continued to analyze. Why, he was shy, incredibly shy! Could this be possible? His online self was very different, often revealing of so many things. But I suppose I either missed the shyness or, like many actors, it was easier to BE than to just be.

With the panel over, I was alone again. Walking the corridor I spied a group of people sitting in a circle and talking on the balcony outside. One was an online friend from a virtual community I inhabit. Our initial meeting the night before had been brief but inviting. Everyone else in the circle, however, was new to me. Our tenuous connection propelled me forward through the doors to the outdoors. As I slowly walked to towards them I brushed aside a continuous flow of insecure thoughts.

I’m more of a recovering introvert. I’ve learned to compensate well, but my formative years loom, just behind my shoulder. Every step I took was a counterbalance to my past. I pulled up a chair and joined them.

They were discussing art and contemporary culture. Someone was video taping the conversation by passing around a camcorder as every one spoke. Immediately someone asked me what I thought. The camera focused tightly on my eyes. What was the question?

I was suddenly grateful we were all seated. I realized it would take a certain effort for all of them to suddenly rise and disperse, leaving me talking to myself. Something made me feel as if I’d been sitting with them for hours. The circle felt rooted and comfortable. I was grateful, relieved, and coherent, all at the same time. It wasn’t quite as good as that first kiss, but it came very close.

“Communication,” [Dr. Kai] shrugs. “A complex art. So many signals. It is a wonder we have even the success that we do. In fact it’s counterintuitive. Your affliction, Mr. Statler, should be not the exception but the rule.”

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