We Read Our Friends

Last week I attended a wedding celebration for my friends Max and Nicole. It also happened to be the first time I had met either of them in person. I was joined by several mutual friends, the majority of whom I was also meeting in person for the first time. Even now I hesitate when simply writing “friends”, feeling a strange need to prepend “Twitter” as a qualifier. I wasn’t unique in that regard—Max and Nicole themselves met and fell in love via Twitter, and that was reflected in the extended network of people who came together to toast their health and future.

It did get me thinking once again about how it feels to finally meet someone with whom most of my interactions were originally—and primarily—textual. To finally see someone whose words I read off the screen, asynchronously? When I am used to interacting with someone in this manner, I construct an image of them from the barest wisps of tone. The sites they link to. The animated GIFs they use. The time(s) of day when they tend to post.

And so when I meet them in person for the first time, there’s a strange period of recalibration as I process their presence, the sheer immediacy of their person. Just hearing someone’s voice can be odd—sometimes they sound exactly like I imagined, but more often they don’t. Perhaps they speak in a higher or lower register, or have a regional accent that grounds them with a sense of place. It can be almost overwhelming. There they are, unattenuated by tiny avatars and 140-character limits. And with their very physical presence, I feel a weird pressure—to be clever, and smart1, because that’s the side of me that I let them read online.

This is nothing new, of course. But I found that in this situation the experience was magnified because it wasn’t just one person, but about six or seven of my Twitter friends, suddenly in front of me in the flesh. Needless to say, I struggled to keep up, to process…well, everything, really: their height. Clothing. Gestures. Expressions. Lacking the space and time to type (and re-type) a reply, even words betrayed me, overwhelmed by everything else. Which is ironic, because words are the one thing that bound us to each other.

But when I finally calmed down there were other things, as well. Warmth, and humor, and sadness—sometimes fluttering almost-imperceptibly across their faces. And on this evening it was mostly joy, palpable and electric. It was breathtaking, and eventually I just shut up and stood there, happy to be seeing and hearing actual smiles and laughter.


1. I once saw a performance by the singer Sam Phillips, and she had brought her own vintage microphone that kept misbehaving during her performance. Flustered, she eventually stopped and apologized, saying “I so very much wanted to be smart and pretty for you.”