Friendship, online and IRL

Nicely observed by Nicolas Carr:

Now think about what happens when people who have struck up friendships online finally get together in the physical world. The meetings are usually approached with nervousness and trepidation. Will we hit it off? Will we still like each other when we’re sitting at a table together? Who is this person, anyway?

The anxiety that virtual friends feel when they’re about to meet in person is telling. It reveals the fragility, the sparseness, of disembodied relationships. It makes plain that we don’t feel we really know another person until we’ve met him or her in the flesh. Screen presence leaves a lot of room for fantasizing, for projecting the self into the other; physical presence is more solid, more filled in — and, yes, more real.

I think this is related to the phenomenon of celebrity. Some people are good at crafting an image which supplies just the right details, no more and no less, so that others will fill in the picture in a way that benefits the crafter.

I know of organizations where in fact there is no “there” there, which deliberately accomplish little beyond convincing contributors that they are doing important work—and yet the convincing all happens on the contributors’ side, a kind of self-delusion which may be guided by the organization’s presentation of itself but can’t be pinned on any particular claim they’ve made. I’ve heard them called “letterhead operations”, which sums it up.

These organizations tend to get nervous when someone shows up at HQ (such as it is) unannounced, or ask for details, or to look at the books. I’m reminded of this sketch from Saturday Night Live.

(Can’t figure out how to embed the video, but the link works.) It’s too long (13 minutes) but contains one of my favorite lines. I’ve included a transcript excerpt underneath the video.

Sam Donaldson: Vice-President Bush, there are millions of homeless in this country – children who go hungry, and lacking in other basic necessities. How would the Bush administration achieve your stated goal of making this a kinder, gentler nation?

George Bush: Well, that is a big problem, Sam, and unfortunately the format of these debates makes it hard to give you a complete answer. If I had more time, I could spell out the program in greater detail, but I’m afraid, in a short answer like this, all I can say is we’re on track – we can do more – but we’re getting the job done, so let’s stay on course, a thousand points of light. Well, unfortunately, I guess my time is up.

Diane Sawyer: Mr. Vice-President, you still have a minute-twenty.

George Bush: What? That can’t be right. I must have spoken for at least two minutes.

Diane Sawyer: No, just forty seconds, Mr. Vice-President.

George Bush: Really? Well, if I didn’t use the time then, I must have just used the time now, talking about it.

Diane Sawyer: No, no, Mr. Vice-President, it’s not being counted against you.

George Bush: Well, I just don’t want it to count against Governor Dukakis’ time.

Diane Sawyer: It won’t. It will come out of the post-debate commentary.

George Bush: Do you think that’s a good idea?

Diane Sawyer: You still have a minute-twenty, Mr. Vice-President.

George Bush: Well, more has to be done, sure. But the programs we have in place are doing the job, so let’s keep on track and stay the course.

Diane Sawyer: You have fifty seconds left, Mr. Vice-President.

George Bush: Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light.

Diane Sawyer: Governor Dukakis. Rebuttal?

Michael Dukakis: I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!

I’ve been Michael Dukakis many, many times, watching some blowhard entrance a crowd, in person or online, saying to myself, “I can’t believe they’re listening to this guy!”


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