Have you ever met anybody in person after first communicating with them by virtue of email, IM, snail mail, or telephone? Most of you probably have. It happens all the time with the telephone: depending on what work you're in, be it sales or some other position where you have to meet with clients or somebody you'll be a client of, most of the time a phone call comes first. But this happens quickly; the time between the phone call and the actual meeting is usually so brief that we don't give the event, the whole experience of getting to know him or her a little before the actual meeting, much thought. However, with other forms of correspondence the time between first communication and an actual meeting in person can be much greater than a few days or a few weeks. It can be months, or years, or maybe even a decade or more. The actual physical meeting that finally takes place takes on much more significance.
Almost precisely seven years ago I randomly came across a person who liked to write as much as I did (probably more) on a chat program, and that does not happen every day. We chatted for a while, talking about what things we liked to write about and specifically about a few of our fictions we'd written. We "met" many more times in the same program, a telnet "world" called MuMu Land, and eventually traded email addresses and sent each other samples of our work. I was bowled over by her talent for writing and her ubiquitous imagination. I was also impressed with her ability to find all kinds of mistakes with my stuff and help me correct them. She is almost solely responsible for making me a better writer, more than any teacher I'd ever had.
About four years ago I finally asked her what her real name was. It was odd in that we'd been chatting, instant messaging, and emailing for years but neither of us had been compelled to swap our legal monikers; we'd been content to just think of each other by our internet handles. Actually she probably knew my real name first since I plaster my name over everything I write, draw, or paint. But I digress. The point is our relationship grew and developed in a slow pace; it was not until over a month ago that we seriously discussed a real possibility of meeting in person.
When you correspond with somebody for many years, in my case seven, the person is actually just a concept if you really think about it. It almost becomes a character in a game with a sophisticated AI. It doesn't matter if you've seen pictures of them (I've seen hundreds of her), seen webcam images of them, or even heard their voice on the phone. (I began phoning her several months ago.) Without actual tactile contact, you are never 100% sure that the person is real. The pictures, the voice, the text of IMs and chats, no matter how much they reveal about the person, a lawyer would say it's all circumstantial evidence; you need an actual body to win the case, which in this instance would be the question of his or her existence. Without the body, detached images and written expositions from the person abstract them - they are just symbols to represent the real thing, which, because of distance or lack of convenience, you don't have access to.
So far, only twice in my lifetime, I have met somebody in person whom I "met" on the internet first. The first time was in March of 1995, an ex-girlfriend with a long story that belongs in another node, and the second time was on September 27, 2003, and the girl was the writer that I've been talking about, somebody a lot of you know here, Swankivy.
First of all, don't get any wrong ideas. This was in no way shape or form a romantic encounter. In fact, I brought my wife and mother-in-law along as we were on our way down to a weeklong vacation in the Florida Keys. But it was a wonderful experience nonetheless. The anticipation had built up to a boiling point up until the moment I crisply knocked on her front door and she opened it. I just wanted to pick her up and swing her around, but thought better of it. Instead I settled for this cute little hug thing she did.
Just like when the Swankster bowled me over with her writing seven years ago, she did it again with her physical presence, literally (we went bowling after having some dinner; she actually won the game after taking the lead away from my mother-in-law with some excellent spares.) All things considered it was a night I will cherish forever. I thought after that night it'd be the last time I'd ever get to see her, at least for a really long time. However, as Fate had it, my wife left her driver's license at the bowling alley because they stupidly required it to hold the lane, so we had to truck back on through Swank's town on the way back up to Missouri to get it. But that short, second meeting, sadly, probably will stand to be the last one for a very long time.
But I digress there. I'm not writing this just to talk about myself and my particular experience. I'm sure almost all of you can relate to the experience of corresponding with somebody via email for years upon years (or even snail mail). Many of you have met the individual in person at some point. No matter how many images or writings from them you see or voices from them you hear, nothing compares to the real deal: the actual warm body to match the pictures and go with the voice and writings. This is why I will never buy into the cynical or science fiction theory that we will become a society where people are just content to socialize online or in some VR world and physical meetings aren't important anymore. People thought a similar thing when the telephone was invented. But it has never happened and still won't happen. We need physical contact to solidify the person's existence and completely validate your friendship with them.
Otherwise, you never know for sure, the person could be just some elaborate, cruel hoax.