Catfish Smells a Little Funny and the Online-To-In-Person Experience

Have you ever had a variant of this conversation with a friend or family member?

  • You: I met So-And-So for lunch today.
  • FFM: Who’s that? An old classmate?
  • You: No. They’re a blog friend.
  • FFM: A what?
  • You: A blog friend. You know, someone you met through the internet.
  • FFM: Are you doing eHarmony?!?!
  • You: No. Not like that. They’re someone who comments on my blog and vice versa. We follow each other on twitter, too.
  • FFM: And you’d never met them before? <shifty eyes>
  • You: No. They’re in town for business.
  • FFM: They don’t live here?
  • You: No. They live in Far Off State or City.
  • FFM: And you’ve never met them? <furrowed brow>
  • You: Not before today, no.
  • FFM: Why would you do that?
  • You: What do you mean?
  • FFM: Why would you meet someone you don’t know?
  • You: Well, because I DO know them. Because I like them. They’re a friend of mine.
  • FFM: How can they be your friend if you’ve never met them?
  • You: Because we interact all the time.
  • FFM: That’s sort of weird, don’t you think? What do you really know about them? What if they weren’t like the way they presented themselves at all?

This conversation is at the heart of a movie that I watched the other night – Catfish. In this documentary, a hipster New York City photographer, Nev, is sent a picture drawn by Abby, an eight-year-old art prodigy, based on one of his photographs. The photographer, his brother and a friend decide to document the interactions and friendships between Nev, Abby, and her family which blossom on Facebook and online.

In time, Abby sends Nev more pictures derived from his photos and Nev finds himself increasingly involved with the family. He talks to Abby’s mother, Angela, and actually begins having a long-distance romantic relationship with Abby’s older sister, Megan. And things get interesting when the hipsters decide they’re going take a road trip to pay an unexpected visit to Abby’s family in Michigan.


Now, Catfish is an interesting film, though it has gotten into a little hot water for perhaps fudging the lines between documentary and entertainment, with some folks wondering if the entire film was staged for effect (which potentially puts it into a different kind of hot water). And I have to admit that while I watched it, I kept wondering if the story was true. To me, the boys seemed exceptionally fortunate to capture every critical moment and turn of the relationships. That’s a lot of GB to record and sift through on a project that might or might not ever turn into something interesting. (It didn’t turn out too badly I guess though, since Catfish’s release, the filmmakers were tabbed to become co-directors of Paranormal Activity 3).

Do you know who's out there?

But the film and the above conversation serve to highlight the potentially fragile nature of online relationships – what if people really aren’t like they seem?

And so if you’re reading this, you almost certainly have some sort of online presence and persona, so my questions are:

  • Have you ever met-up with anyone that you first met online (and not in an e-dating sense)? If so, how many different people?
  • Have the interactions been positive or negative? Are you glad you did it?


Personally, I have found many of the relationships I’ve first made online over the last five years to be some of my most favorite and important to me, and by and large everyone I’ve met has been almost exactly like I have expected them to be (except for maybe their voices, I never seem to be able to pin down voices).

I’m very curious to hear your experiences. And by all means, elaborate on your answers and feelings in the comments!

65 thoughts on “Catfish Smells a Little Funny and the Online-To-In-Person Experience

  1. Luckily most of the people I know do the same thing, so I don’t get these sorts of questions. Almost all the people I’m closest to started as online friends, and I’ve had many happy times with them.

    I’ve only met 3 VOXers, though: AmyH, Hangaku Gozen, and lauowolf. Amy and I have had two big dinners and an Alcatraz trip, HG stayed at my house for a long weekend, and lauo and I have been to each other’s houses and had several lovely brunches. I have exchanged “stuff” with several more, and am still immensely grateful to the VOXers (I still don’t know all of them) who donated a ton of money when my cat needed an operation.

    Other online friends I’ve met stretch as far away as England. And I actually helped one move to another city once.

    • Lurkertype — there’s part of me that hopes there are little kernels of old vox clusters throughout the world. There was a really good thing going on there for a while. I’ve liked the switch to WP, especially after SixApart gave up, but it’s not quite the same sense of community.

  2. All the online friends I’ve met IRL have been just as awesome as I predicted. It’s kind of a strange awkwardness though, because you continue conversations face-to-face that you started online, or even make references to exchanges you had months or even years ago – when you’ve never met face to face before! It’s kind of strange. But I’ve always gotten over it pretty quickly.

    You forgot one in your exchange at the beginning: “How do you know he/she isn’t an axe murderer?” :)

  3. Holy cow. I’ve met close to 30 people that I originally met online. I think it’s a different world out there today. Meeting people online is different than it used to be. I’m very thankful for all the people that I have met through the internet. They are some of my closest friends today. I married a guy I met online and I met my best friend online. :D

    • janie — I think it is very different today, and I think that I am just old enough to be on the other side of the curve. I am also the youngest in my family and so this all really seemed strange to my older family members — but I mean, geez — we got to meet Grandma P! So that might throw the age argument out the window.

  4. I must see this film.

    The most recent (and grandest) interweb peep encounter of the third kind was with Laurie, noted author and Canadian. We had a wonderful time, chatted like old friends, and I introduced her to the wonders of the hush puppy. (The fried ball of awesome, not the shoe)

    A few years earlier, i met up with Ali from Vox. I knew her years before in school, but our friendship was all from Vox.

    I’ve talked on the phone with a few others, and those went well too.

    I think it’s different if someone is trolling online, actively looking for love or nookie or robbery victims, etc. In Voxland and its successors, we were expressing our own personae. I followed people whose thoughts i liked, or whose writing (or art) i enjoyed. Maybe that’s the difference: we already liked each others core being.

    Or maybe I’m completely wrong, and everyone on the Interweb has colluded to mess with me. BASTARDS! *shakes fist*

    Very interesting ideas, sir.

    • Or maybe I’m completely wrong, and everyone on the Interweb has colluded to mess with me. BASTARDS! *shakes fist*

      I did start wondering about that again when a number of sites started dropping RSS support. Thankfully, I’m able to keep in contact with most of my blogging friends through feeds, but… it’s not always a neat, clean interaction (TypePad won’t display comments to my desktop feed reader, for one).

      • jaklumen — I’ve lost a couple of old voxers that went to posterous or other sites and made them semi-private. The bar for access got to be a little too high and they fell off my radar like friends from one school that move to another. You say you’ll stay in touch, but unless they were really important to you, you don’t.

    • tom –I think you’d find the film interesting. I remember the description of your epic meeting with Laurie. Can I still use “epic” or is that a beaten-dead-horse?

      I do think that blogs give a chance for a person to express themselves in a way that twitter and facebook just don’t — and from that you get a chance to really sample who the writer is.

  5. Wow. That’s awesome!

    I belonged to an online group for several years, several years ago. Most of us met up IRL at some point, often several times over. Mostly everyone was cool, a few folks that were actually cooler (and more articulate) online. But I also met some amazing, AMAZING people that are dear friends to this day.

    It’s definitely not as scary meeting online people IRL anymore. But you DO need to be cautious & vet people properly. On the first big meet-up that I attended, there were probably 10 of us. I had to call one of my best friends from home EVERY DAY to prove that I hadn’t been “chopped into pieces & stuffed in a suitcase.” We laugh about that now. ;-)

    • handtalker — more than the dating process, I think that reading each others’ blogs has really become the vetting process. We get to sort of know the person, who they hang out with and maybe most importantly, how they interact with others with comments and questions and things.

  6. I did a large Vox meetup in San Fran and found all but 2 people to be pretty much as I had imagined them. Did a workout class with another Vox person – didn’t like them IRL but we’re still internet friends. Drove to Palm Springs to meet Crankypants and she exceeded my already wonderful expectations.

    • leendadll — I can only imagine the coolness of crankypants.

      We had a meet-up in the early days of vox here in San Diego, but most of the people that said they were going to come didn’t. The ones that did though were awesome and I still know them today.

  7. Everyone I’ve met have either been part of an online literary group or contacts of an IT nature. No “looking for Mr Goodbar” here so I guess that’s what makes them all successful meets in my opinion. I wasn’t hoping for something other than what they were. (though I suppose the fact that none of them turned out to be serial killers was a HUGE bonus)

    • Chris — nope, no Goodbars. There have been people that I haven’t quite hit it off with as much as I might have thought, but you can say that about any interaction, I think.

  8. I have great times at the couple of Tweetups I’ve gone to, one where I even dragged my wife along. And I’ve met a few other random Twitterbuds as well, plus a few guys in my old Day of Defeat clan. All have been great experiences. And if you’re ever in the Boston area, I hope to make you a cocktail :)

  9. I’ve only ever met people I found through groups, but I’ve been in online communities for so long that I really consider my relationships with my online friends to be very real and personal! Some even have my address, and many have shared really important moments in my life with me. I’d always be open to the possibility of meeting in person.

    This is the way the world works now. Relationships and social interactions are different because of the internet. It’s so normal to have real relationships online– with friends whom you’ve never met!

    • EM — it’s funny that you talk about people having your address and really being part of your life because last year when we were doing Christmas cards, I was amazed at the number that go out to folks that I initially met online. I agree — I don’t really see the difference in the relationships.

  10. I have, so far, met 5 people I knew only through my blog and they were exactly how they appeared online. All five of them have their own blogs too, and wear their heart on their sleeves, which makes them very honest and trustworthy people.

    However, I met a larger crowd (~20 people) at a twitter-roundup in my town during the brief time (2 months) I was on twitter. Although there was nothing “evil” about that crowd, I felt very uncomfortable, exposed and badly matched. That induced me to close my twitter account and swear off social networking sites.

    • LG — I think that bloggers — especially ones that do a good job of communicating who they are — most often do come across like we expect them to be. In many ways, we’ve already met them through their words and stories. And I can see how twitter personae aren’t nearly as personal or indicative.

  11. I need to see this movie. I’ve been very lucky in that all of my meetups with online acquaintances turned out to be very positive, though there was the one in Canada who was a no-show because he turned out to be an alcoholic. (I didn’t meet him through Vox, thank goodness, but still, looking back, I wonder why I was so eager to see him in real life.) The internet has made it a lot easier to meet people with whom we actually have a lot in common, and I count my friendships here on WordPress to be as valuable as my “meaty” friends whom I talk or write to in “real life.”

    Which brings me to wonder, what is “real life” anymore? I run into a number of people in my-day-to-day activities, and I’ll sometimes chat with them and pass the time of day. But in the end, I really don’t know that much about them, or feel any closer to them for all the pleasantries we’ve exchanged. On the much-missed Vox and now WordPress however, I’ve made friends with a number of people with whom I would not hesitate to lend money to, or call in the event my car has broken down in their towns of residence, or cry and grieve with. It’s peculiar, and yet, is it so different from arranged marriages in places like India, or the custom of the written introduction that was used by people to meet a friend’s relatives or colleagues? Having lost the close ties of a small town or extended families, perhaps we have now the internet to create new ones.

    • I like the way you said it, Professor Gozen.

      The Voxiverse had certain nodes with lots of “my people.” Seattle, Dallas, and Baltimore were big ones, as is your Bay Area. Sadly, here? Bupkes.

      I like the idea that our real-life friends are just meat puppets. :D

    • Having lost the close ties of a small town or extended families, perhaps we have now the internet to create new ones.

      I think it might be a two-way effect, but I’m not really sure. I think societies, particularly affluent Western ones, are becoming much more insular. Are we coming online because local communities have broken down? Or are communities breaking down because more people are online?

      • My primary-care doctor said she thought people who spend too much time online were depressed. That might be true: as you start shutting down emotionally, you may start turning more and more to the internet partly to escape, and partly because it’s easier to chat or email people than have to talk to them face to face. Some trolls (and we had our share of them on Vox—ken, anyone remember him?) are probably emotionally ill and get some relief from trying to push people’s buttons, since they’re passive-aggressive in real life.

        But I find my internet relationships stimulating and fun. There have been many days where I came home exhausted and depressed after a terrible day, only to perk up at seeing an email or new blog post from a ex-Voxer/WP friend. And because of the internet, I’ve gotten more active in my community: it’s easier to find out what’s going on, and what opportunities are out there. So it’s like so many other things we have at our disposal: it’s what you want to make of it.

    • HG — I think I was really nervous the first time or two that I met with people that I first met online — would I be “myself”? would I meet their expectations? I wondered if I came across online like I am — I don’t really worry about it now, because my experience has been very positive in that people are just as likable in person as they are online — if not moreso.

      It’s funny, but when I travel I find myself wanting to go see my blog friends maybe more than some other “old school” people that I know. And you’re right — I know when something happens with our online communities, we feel it just as much as those more traditional relationships.

      • @HG OMG, ken is so one of the things I was grateful to get away from on Vox, right? I shouldn’t pick on the guy, like you said he’s probably lonely in his personal life. I think that the online thing can go either way – I tend to also get depressed when I’m online too much. Not so much socializing here, which lasts at most 20 or 30 minutes total, then it’s just me mindlessly clicking around the web. Once I tear my eyes away from the screen and step outdoors, it’s like a reawakening. Fresh air! Wow! :)

      • @HG, Steve: It seems sadder the deeper I try to look at it. I was talking with my therapist/counselor yesterday. I *do* have a mental illness and some trauma issues I’m still working on, but basically, it is getting harder and harder to connect in my local community. I have been working with her to get involved as such. I noted that my local area does NOT have very much of an Internet presence, and joked, “They are probably all on Facebook.” She strongly agreed: “They are!” and we talked more about how residents just seem so… insular. I mentioned what my gamer/geek friends and family had said about our local convention of late ( and how that seemed to be another example. The consensus seemed to be that the local community is in a rut and doesn’t seem to want to climb out. Many are becoming weary of being involved in the con as it’s growing too big, but there is no branching out to separate conventions, the community seems cliquish and not doing much to recruit new folks, etc.

        I think I’ll write more at my own space about it, for the sake of politeness. You’re welcome, of course, to come share some thoughts.

      • @Emmy- It’s funny, but I suspect ken’s around somewhere. There was this guy whose comments I saw on someone else’s political blog, and though he didn’t call himself “ken,” the syntax and words all written in lower case letters sure sounded familiar.

        I try to keep my activities on the internet focused: I first do my online tasks like banking and business emails first, then check the news and my WP friends’ blogs. There are also some good sites I like to follow, like Lifehacker, io9, and SFist, the Bay Area gossip and news site. I might also watch a movie on Netflix, but generally I don’t have time to be online for long periods of time. Plus we’re now entering the Cycle of Unbearable Family Time—talk about preferring to be with online friends, LOL! But I see the internet as a terrific tool and try to use it wisely. Like everything else, you sit here too long and eventually you’ll see a turd float by. :D

      • @jaklumen- I’d be curious to see your take on RL communities and relationships. I’ll be sure to check your blog if it’s not one of the gated ones. :)

        One thing about WP and the sorely-missed Vox: we get to know each other by reading our blog posts before we actually meet in person. In RL it’s hard to get to know people that deeply unless you spend a lot of time with them, which just doesn’t happen nowadays: no time, few opportunities, or we have sharply divided work and personal lives. (I used to teach, which is such a demanding, personalized profession that after a while I lost any desire to hang out with my co-workers. We would have coffee and lunches together, but once I left work, I just wanted to go home and cocoon in my own space.) Hobby or specific-interest groups like science fiction, anime, and gamer communities are fun, but they’re only as good as long as you’re interested in the activity. I used to be very active in anime online sites and groups, but as I got older and the fanboys and girls got younger, I began to feel more like a babysitter than a colleague, and eventually I dropped out. I used to be very close to a number of people from those anime sites, but I never hear from them anymore. I don’t know why, but human relationships are somewhat opportunistic, I suspect. Out of sight, out of mind, as my mother used to say. Except you’re usually out of sight online [rolls eyes].

        • HG and Jaklumen — I think there is definitely something to the removal of interactions at the personal level. As a community, I don’t think we know our neighbors in the way that we used to, and at work there is little personal time. When I was younger, there were many impromptu happy hours and activities, but now I find that I just want to be at home — and the company I seek perhaps is that from my online community. In many ways, co-workers are like family — you don’t pick them, but you always get to choose your friends no matter where they are from!

  12. Thanks for the movie idea. I have yet to meet a fellow blogger or tweet buddy in the flesh. I haven’t even thought about it really…until now. So, another thank you…for giving me something else to distract me from NaNoWriMo! *sigh*

    • BD — I’m surprised because you come across very distinctly online — though I know you keep the “family” blog separate. What a collision when those two worlds come together! Ka-boom!!!

  13. Why do people react so negatively to hear you’ve met an online friend? You could tell that very same person that you shared your table with a random stranger who was eating alone and they’d simply think of you as outgoing and cool. I don’t get it. I really enjoy meeting people face to face that I’ve made friends with online. Heck, I’m even married to one of them and have been for over 12 years.

    • QOFB — I think there is a stigma that online people are “creepy” — and certainly I believe that there are plenty of creepy people in the world. But I think there are SO many people online who are just themselves, that meeting and sharing with them is great.

  14. I can’t vote on the 2nd because it’s this: a few people are besties (over 10 years–maybe 15?), most are meh and fade away and MOSTLY have been trainwrecks, absolutely crazy mother-fuckers/ swingers/ freaks/ people who are looking for somebody to steal from, sell into slavery or I don’t know what.

    Worse? I didn’t “get” the trainwrecks were as bad as they were til several months later or after a few more encounters. As to the ones that faded, maybe I was their trainwreck?

  15. I have not met any of my online friends in person; however, I’ve exchanged snail mail, email and spoken with one by phone (several times). I hope to meet one face to face next Summer, during a family vacation.
    I wanted to watch Catfish when it was streaming on Netflix. I missed the window. Maybe the window will open again.

  16. I have only been to one meet up and it was with 12 Voxpeeps who met in Boston! It was an absolute blast and so much fun to meet everyone. I feel very close to the majority of the peeps I met at that meetup! I think the key on Vox was exactly as some people above have already commented. We are blogging to share ourselves as we really are. Not trying to impress anyone, or trick anyone. I just loved Vox because people shared websites or books or music or life stories and when we needed a resource we just put it out there and got many splendid suggestions. Also, if we heard of a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack we checked up on the peeps in that part of the world. I am constantly saying to my husband, or friends, or co-workers “So and so on my blog, who lives in this country, says this.” I get some weird looks, but it’s such a part of my life now that I am not going to pretend I don’t know people all over the world just so someone in my immediate vicinity isn’t shocked. :)
    I sure hope to get to more meetups in the future!

    • Oh, my colleagues keep looking at me funny when I mention my blog-friends… it’s like they think I have imaginary friends and they should better just nod and smile and not talk about it. I’ve given up explaining it.

    • It seems sort of corny to think about the “golden age” of vox as a community, but it really was. There were so many good people and good groups and good discussions. It really was a great convergence of things for a while and I count myself lucky for having taken a stab at that whole “blogging thing” 5+ years ago.

      I also have stopped referring to blog-friends differently than “real” friends, because I can tell you the folks from vox are as important to me as anyone.

  17. Thanks for the film reference, and I wonder just how acceptable it is to lie or if it really is a lie, depending on how theynportrayed the realness of the film. That is a whole other topic! I did meet one female bud from Vox. From her persona there I expected.a bubbly, almost cartoonish gal with a love for geeky stuff. I could not have been more wrong. She was almost mysterious, serene, extremely intelligent. Still fun but much more somber than I ever would have imagined her . Makes me wonder if our online personas are almost like separate people with their own lives.

    • Em — it’s an interesting question about online personas. I think that I try to be who I am — both online and in person, though I wonder if many people use the internet as kind of an escape valve or blank slate to be someone else — which I think is sad, because it suggests that they’re not happy with who they are “in person”. I wonder if being online could teach people to shake off the things that bug them about themselves?

      • That’s a great question, Steve! Actually I find that when I spend too much time chatting online at the expense of one on one contact, I lose practice being “present” in that Buddhist sense in person. When I took a class with coworkers, for example, I tried to go running and do yoga several days before each weekly class. Because otherwise, I was impatient when other people were talking. Not good! Regarding your question – I bet it could indeed help people practice socilalzing! People may use it as a blank slate to some degree, but seeing as how SO many people blog, I wonder how you’d determine which ones are using it that way.

  18. Strangely, some of my best friends are people (local ones) that I met through the internet. We all use a miles tracking website called “Daily Mile”. I’ve also met several running buddies via 43things. One of them, is absolutely nothing like his online persona, which is quirky and chatty and funny…in person he is extremely shy and reserved. It took some getting used to but I really love him just as he is…I know all the quirk is still there, he is just quiet. I’ve also met some people from lonely Planet when I used to frequent that site, and they have introduced me to the wonders of Grimaldis Pizza in Brooklyn, so that can not be beat. In fact, I’ve got a vacation planned with many of my pals as well.
    I admit though, many people are surprised when meeting me, I think they expect me to be stick thin, and I’m just a chunk!

    • miz — it’s funny, but for some reason, there was never a huge vox contingent here in San Diego — a few but not many and so almost everyone I know is from afar. Although maybe it’s easier to take a chance to meet-up with someone who lives farther away because if it doesn’t go well, it’s okay because they live far away!

  19. Never met any of them and really doubt I will since I’m a hermit in the middle of nowhere. Back in the BBS days I did know of one person in the same town I live in who wanted to meet up. He didn’t know who I was, but luckily I knew who he was and knew he was someone I’d never want to spend 2 seconds with.

    I do, however, catch myself saying to RL people, “I know a guy in San Diego who …” and the like, and then feel a little odd explaining it. So I quit and just let folks think I actually do know a lot of people from all over the place.

    The movie sounds like a good idea, but it does sound a bit contrived.

    • GOM — I think contrived is the right word. My guess is that it really happened and that the guy was duped for a while, but as he was figuring it out he decided something like — hey, this could make a great movie and sort of back filled it in.

      You know, you never know who might drive through Oklahoma one day. We did it a while ago, but it was before we knew each other — lucky for you!!

    • SS — it’s funny, when we met up with friends of ours that we first met online who live in Maryland, we talked about what an AWESOME road trip it would be going to see all the people that you know online — what a remarkable collection of people, places and stories!

  20. Pingback: About a Catfish: fresher than my local area | the tao of jaklumen

  21. Just saw this poll, and am somewhat startled to realize my number is > 10, as I don’t think of myself as a meets-new-people kind of guy. Generally good experiences; I don’t think I had any instances of “You’re kidding me—that’s what _______ is like IRL?!” So there are quite a few online folks I do hope to meet up with sooner or later.

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