When worlds collide

Earlier this morning, in the elevator ride up to my office, the guy next to me suddenly says, “Hey, you’re Bethany Crystal, right?”

I give him the same look I give many people that I should know who I actually forget. Then he continues:

“I follow you on Twitter.” He introduces himself. I also recognize his name from his Twitter handle. And soon we have established a real-world connection that started online.

These seem to be happening more frequently. A couple of nights ago, I experienced my first instance of meeting a person who better remembered my own blog post that I did. After moderating a panel discussion, an attendee approached me to share some of her progress on her job search. During our conversation, she mentioned having read my blog post, “The 4-box job searching grid” and started to share with me some of her insights.

“I really resonated with what you had in the bottom left quadrant. What was that again?”

My mind went blank. “Ummm…bottom left, bottom left…” I racked my brain for a minute. What did I call that quadrant again? And what items did I have in there? Finally it came back to me, and I fumbled to recount what I had included. It didn’t escape me that somebody else was remembering better something that I had spent so much time into writing and creating.

There’s something lovely about worlds colliding in this way. The digital side of interaction becomes so much more gratifying when it intersects in real life (IRL). But is there a cost to carrying an online persona?

I still remember the very first experience I had with meeting “Internet fame in real life.” Going into my freshman year of college (back in 2005), Facebook was still in the early days. We were one of the universities on the platform, and I got invited to join the “incoming class of 2009” Facebook group. As graduated seniors, all of us were bored out of our minds over the summer while waiting for our lives to begin in college. Needless to say, the group quickly became our one and only lifeline to our future potential, and it devolved a frenzy of questions, answers, discussions, and general chatter.

There was one woman in this group — let’s call her Michelle— who was just on fire. She chimed in on every single discussion. She helped route people’s questions to each other, and she would even investigate with university personnel or other online resources to direct us to places to look when we had questions. If you asked a question that didn’t get a good answer, she would send you a private message and introduce herself and start a conversation. She made me feel a lot of things. Warm. Special. Welcomed. Included.

By the end of the summer, it seemed like everyone in the incoming freshmen class adored Michelle. She had at least five times as many Facebook friends as me, and everything she said seemed to be brilliant. I remember hitting a moment that summer where I thought, “Well, there it goes. Already we see who’s rising to the top of the ranks in terms of school popularity. If I play my cards right, maybe there’s still time for me to stay afloat at least in the top 50th percentile.”

When we got to school at freshmen orientation, I remember meeting Michelle for the first time. Seeing her after seeing her photo and her name felt both exotic and disappointing. There Michelle was, in the flesh, wielding so much power without needing to stand out in the crowd. I was instantly intimidated and jealous. How had she so effortlessly rallied the people around her, become a subject matter expert, and conquered social media? And, more important, was there still time for us to be friends?

Years later, I ended up getting paired with Michelle on a school project. Even though the mystique had worn off, there was still an element of an aura around her. She for some reason felt safer to me. And protected. I trusted her first, after all.

Truth be told, Michelle was a pretty shitty group project teammate. She didn’t pull her own weight. She missed deadlines, and her output wasn’t stellar. I have a recollection of her actually abandoning us (and the assignment) midway through the project. We ended up as acquaintances only, but we stayed Facebook friends. I think by now she has a new last name and a new baby.

Nobody still logs into that Facebook group anymore. Probably very few people remember Michelle. It’s hard to say why she stuck out to me so much so early on, but she certainly left an imprint. Although, it begs the question — did Michelle leave an imprint…or did her online persona leave one? Is this the same…or is it a little different?

Later on, while living in Philadelphia, I had my first “Twitter friend date.” That is to say, a woman I met on Twitter agreed to meet me IRL for coffee. She had way more followers than me, seemed exceedingly cooler, and carried the gravitas of the most chill girl posse that I knew. Before I met her in person, I was beside myself. I remember exclaiming to my entire office: “OMG. I’m going to meet ___. I’m so nervous. Do you think she’ll like me? Will we become best friends?!?”

Much like Michelle, in the end, she was fine. But she was nothing out of the ordinary. We hung out maybe three times. And honestly I don’t even remember her last name. I haven’t spoken to her in years.

If you only know me from the online world, it’s incredibly likely that if you were to meet me IRL today, you’d feel the same way. “Um…really?” you might ask yourself. “This girl has wayyyyy too much energy. I just can’t. Also she’s not actually clever. She just does a good job at faking it in her blog.”

But if and when worlds collide for you, I hope you at least take stock of the moment. It’s a unique and really new interaction model for humans — to have a prior notion of a person before experiencing the face-to-face version. Enjoy it while it lasts.