By Nishant Shah
First time meetings are strange events. There is a sense of adventure, a whisper of anxiety, a tremor of curiosity about the stranger who is going to materialise in front of you. However, in the age of Google, where everybody can stalk everybody, some of the anxiety about what the person might be like, can be mitigated. We can track their professional affiliations on LinkedIn, their Facebook profiles and the things that they like, the food that they eat photographed on Instagram, and the political battles they fight on Twitter; even their favourite haunts on FourSquare, or the Tumblr that they make their art on, is just a quick search away.
This condition of knowing somebody online — their favourite colour, time of day, books, movies, political positions and embarrassing biographies told in selfies and status updates — is sometimes intensified by the fact that we often know our online friends more than those that we might be hanging out with exclusively offline. Because the default mode of being online is to reveal, to show, to uncover the deepest, the darkest, the silliest and the most personal parts of our lives and being, the online connection can be intense in a way that real life conversations might need time to build up.
And yet, there are now different kinds of anxieties that emerge as we translate digital conversations into physical encounters. What do you do when you meet somebody, whose profile, professional resume and interests are things that you already know? The social convention that tentatively begins with comments on weather, followed by a slow prodding of the person’s hobbies and likes, are no longer acceptable topics of conversation. Do you pretend that you are strangers, even though you have been sharing stories of sexual escapades over the last few years? Are we still meeting for the first time, when you have a shared history, of buzzing the other person on Twitter in the middle of the night because somebody broke your heart? The anxiety of knowing, perhaps, is even more intense than the anxiety of meeting the unknown.
I tossed the question to a bunch of millennials the last time I hung out with them. What do you talk about when you meet for the first time with somebody you have known forever? And for the large part, they did not understand the question. For almost all of them, there was no distinction between knowing a person online and offline. Because the people they meet online often turn out to be on 4.2 degrees of separation, and more often than not, it is always “people like us”. And the offline friends are in a state of constant digital chatter, where they are connected and talking through different interfaces all the time. The notion of stranger-danger seems to escape them. The conversations between the known and the unknown, the digital and the physical just seem to flow seamlessly.
If there was one thing that they did confess, which causes some anxiety, is the appearance of the other person. With younger users exercising so much control over how they appear online, what gets displayed, and how it is positioned, there is now a growing concern that the person in the picture might be different than they appear in real life. Their argument is that if you have spent enough time chatting online with somebody, you can always tell when they are lying, and you more or less know what to expect. But you can never be sure of what the person is going to look like. “Like when we first met you,” one of them said, “We were relieved. Because you look so much like your selfie.”
Nishant Shah is director (research), Centre for Internet and Society