"It's nice to meet you in real life, you know, off of Facebook!" It seems like this is what I tell someone vaguely familiar every time I go to a party that doesn't solely consist of close friends. Last night, I met someone in person I've followed on Facebook, Instagram and some blogs for months. We see people's vacation photos when we've never said one word to them in person and know the names of their pets. There are people whom I've followed online for more than 10 years through LiveJournals and blogs and Twitter and Facebook. This is the new normal, this way of meeting people and yet not meeting them. It's fascinating how often we now find ourselves trying to explain that we know someone online, but are excited for that relationship to cross over into the real world.
It's wonderful to get to know people in this way because I've gotten to follow and learn from people with amazingly different lives in a variety of careers in cities all over the country. When a rockabilly model I've followed online for years honeymooned in Italy and Instagramed some highlights, I cheered. When a goth artist in Orange County got married to her longtime love, I was as pumped as I'd be for real-life friends. After a decade of reading this woman's LiveJournal, I feel like I've gotten to know her a bit. I still wonder what happened to Internet people who dropped off the face of the earth, never to update their blog again. There was Baditude, the somewhat-depressed teen who lived in the same canyon as Elizabeth Smart around the time she was kidnapped. She collected Buddha statues and unusual piercings and had the most beautiful curly hair. I really want to know if she grew up and got happier and if she's still doing photography.
I'll also always wonder what happened to BoyLovesGirl, a gorgeous woman of Persian descent in Norman, Okla., who documented her beautiful love up until her boyfriend dumped her and she deleted almost her entire backlog of posts. I hope she found someone new. Or Apathy, the ultra-goth teen who lived in Spokane, Ore., in a trailer behind her mother's house. She wore pleather pants and loved the band A Perfect Circle. When she moved away, she stopped updating, and I wonder where she ended up. Was Portland kind to her? What career did she end up pursuing? I'll never know, but I wish I had a way to find out.
Even within Chattanooga, I often meet people online first and in person later. The Internet has turned all of us into parasocial fans, following one another's lives like some kind of reality soap opera. It's easier than ever to express yourself and put it all out there, and we view privacy very differently than before. A guy I went out on a date with once referred to me as "Chattafamous"; and in a way, we're all reasonably Chattafamous, or anywhere-famous, simply because we're all online.
My mother went to some lengths when I was a teenager to keep her blog somewhat anonymous. She only referred to me on it as "Dear Daughter" in an effort to keep our online identities a little separate. She wrote often about politics back then. The great thing about the Internet is it gives you a place to share and communicate ideas and meet likeminded people for conversation, but it also means linking your name to topics and ideas you wouldn't necessarily bring up in polite conversation. I know these incredibly intimate details about the lives of some of the bloggers I've followed, though I'll never meet them in person. Just like people whom my mother wouldn't necessarily bring politics up with could log onto the Internet and learn her strongly held viewpoints, I know that a blogger thousands of miles away always took her birth control while watching "The Simpsons" in bed with her boyfriend. I still remember the punch in the gut of reading a blog post from a single mom and pro-choice activist in Austin who came home to find her wife dead of an overdose in the hallway. I followed her grieving for months, and my heart broke when she lost custody of her wife's little boy to his grandparents. Her little boy must be in his teens by now.
These days, we all seem to fret so much about privacy and the NSA and if social media is a narcissistic attempt at celebrity. Yet we so often forget there is a fun side to living life out loud online. It's the little details like why you dislike a certain senator or how you remember your meds that show us the simple beauty of everyday life. I love simply knowing that someone on Instagram who lives in L.A. has a yen for a certain taco stand. I'll probably never eat there, but it's wonderful to know someone does.
For all that we worry that the Internet is reducing real connections and cutting us off from one another, we should remember that it also creates a new, beautiful kind of intimacy. I enjoy the kind of honest writing we do on the Web, casually and without guile, recording the banal ins and outs of our days that, when added up together, are the accounts of whole, wonderful lives. These little glimpses into others' days make you feel less alone. They give your own routine a little extra texture. They teach you things about other subcultures and cities and ways to be. That can add up to empathy and compassion and interest. Forget the hate read trend, I'm a fan of the "strangers' lives are awesome" reading. You'll get to meet someone new, read a real biography and decide for yourself who your celebrities are.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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