Online acquaintances can become great offline pals, but the initial in-person meeting can be all kinds of awkward.
Illustration: Nakahodo MCT
There’s a regular Sunday gathering at Nora Purmort’s house in northeast Minneapolis.
Women come by to sip coffee and share snacks. They chat about their lives, and occasionally tackle a craft project.
The guest list varies, but for the most part, they aren’t childhood friends, college classmates or co-workers. They met on Twitter, conversing 140 characters at a time.
“They don’t know each other [in real life], but they’ve been following each other on Twitter,” Purmort said. “If I can have people over and it can be a mix of people who only know each other on the Internet, that’s a pretty cool thing.”
Social media has been a social boon for Purmort, who figures she’s made more than a dozen close friends via the social network since moving back to Minneapolis a few years ago. Others share her enthusiasm, attending regular events around the Twin Cities, known as tweetups, to meet those they’ve only chatted with online.
They say the social media chatter eases in-person connection and forges deeper ties around mutual interests more quickly. There’s no need to cast about for common passions if you’ve spent the past few months bantering about films or baseball on Twitter.
But meeting online friends in person can also come with all sorts of awkwardness — or even danger — without a little common sense.
After years of reading someone’s blog, you might know their Mommy woes or fashion tastes, but you’re missing a lot of other information. People question how much to reveal: Is it creepy to bring up that adorable baby photo on Instagram the first time you meet? Then there are personality traits. Does Twitter humor translate in person?
“There are a few moments of getting acquainted or weirdness because you’re meeting a modern-day pen pal in real life,” said Rachel Bertsche, author of “MWF Seeking BFF,” a book about her yearlong quest to make new friends as an adult. “When you meet in real life, it’s not like a blind date so much as a ‘You’ve Got Mail’ situation.’”
As with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in that 1990s rom-com classic, you know plenty about each other — but probably are missing key details.
“You’re making assumptions about who that person is,” said Carlin Flora, who wrote the book “Friendfluence” about the way friends shape each other. “It’s hard to fit the model in your head of the person with the actual in-the-flesh person in front of you.”
Yet that can be part of the fun, as long as the in-person surprises aren’t alarming.
Erin Herold of Minneapolis recently met a man at a local tweetup whom she had been following on Instagram. She didn’t know what he looked like until that in-person introduction.
“I’d know his dog. I could tell you all about him, but I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd in a room,” she said. “It was the nicest thing to be able to put a true face with a name.”
They’re planning to get together again for coffee.
But not all meetings go so well.
When Herold, who has a disability, met another Twitter acquaintance for coffee, he made a snide comment about her cane, calling it “a really neat affectation.”
There was no second friend date for him.
Still, she’s undeterred, and says she views meeting online friends a lot like online dating. You meet lots of people. Some relationships click, some don’t.
Safety is an important consideration, too, said Herold. Headlines trumpet the tragic results of meetings with online predators. That’s why Herold meets her online friends in a public place. She — and others — also use social networks to vet online friends in advance of meeting.
It’s that the online connection that helps jump-start offline friendships, social media butterflies say. By the time you meet in person, you’ve already learned about each other’s careers from LinkedIn or spent time live tweeting together about the latest episode of “Game of Thrones.”
Mykl Roventine, director of Social Media Breakfast–Minneapolis/St. Paul, said it’s a bit like having social super powers.
“You’ve kind of skipped a bunch of those introductory steps and can dive right into a more quality conversation,” Roventine said.
Hundreds of people do that throughout the year at Social Media Breakfasts, monthly events for networking in person and learning about social media. In introductions, people often share their real names and Twitter handles.
“When you have a conversation with somebody and you’re introducing yourself and trying to make a good first impression, you want to connect with them,” he said. “Being able to compliment their latest Instagram photo is a pretty safe way to do that.”
If people are sharing on social media publicly, they want people to see it and react to it, Roventine said. Why not bring it up?
For Purmort, who moved back to Minneapolis from New York City in her late 20s, connecting via social media first was a way to break through the reserved Minnesota demeanor and make friends. Plus, social networks make it easy to see mutual friends who can help with introductions or vouch for someone.
When her husband had a seizure a few weeks ago, a Twitter friend jumped in to help during his recovery.
“She made a hot dish and dropped it off at our house,” Purmort said. “It was the least weird thing ever.”
Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758