This weekend I've met a friend in the flesh for the first time. I got to know him through IRC over many years, and later on through voip programs such as Skype. We'd helped each other a number of times, and I think I probably know him a lot better than I know many of my casual acquaintances from so-called real life.
It's still true that there's a certain qualitative difference from getting to know someone through a stream of text, or even occasional voice conversations, to having them around fully present. I was a bit curious about how the visit would go, and now that it's over, I think it went well enough.
He came on Friday, and left on Monday morning. I don't have a great deal of room in my flat, so we shared a room and his bed was probably a little less than optimal. He's also used to a very different schedule than the one we use here, both for meals and for sleep.
We showed him a fair amount of the city, especially while the weather was favourable (on Sunday it turned rainy). Some of the monuments, the bars, the open market... I knew he was particularly interested in food, so we also got him to eat quite a broad spectrum of typical things from hereabouts: octopus, squid, clams, muscles, chickpea stew, Galician stew (with pork, beef, saussage and vegetables), filloas (a sort of Galician pancake) and so on. He certainly didn't complain of being underfed!
We also did other things. We played the Game of Thrones game, watched the film Four Lions, listened to some music, and discussed about all kinds of things. He was quite impressed about our blinds, as they are very thick and completely exclude light from the room.
There are people who think online friendships cannot be genuine; that there is always a lack of authenticity because one has more time to present oneself and can control what they choose to expose. This has not been my experience. I've met a few people whom I had long friendships with and it always worked out well so far. Likewise, I think it is a bit of a naive view to take on so-called RL friends, that they aren't also engaged in reputation and identity management, so to speak. Masks aren't something that came provided by the Internet, and in their metaphorical form are just as common outside it.
In fact I remember I used to think the net was a more authentic means of communication, because the only basis for judgement is a depersonalised text stream, the raw thought stuff, detached from the identity markers that often come implicit in embodiment: race, gender, disability, even to some extent wealth (the clothes may not make the monk but they certainly help in distinguishing him). This days I'm a lot more hesitant about this view as well. I think it comes from a slightly pernicious dualist view of persons: that we are minds embodied in a physical and sensorial field that distorts our actual intellectual core. It is more accurate to think of people as overlapping interdependent phenomena, rather than attempting to look for a real person confined amidst the flesh.
Whatever the case, the visit went well. I am a bit of an introvert and need my peace and quiet, so I'm probably going to be a little less outgoing for a few days in response, but it was definitely worth it.