Many, many years ago, when my brother first went to college, he made some friends via the internet. At the time, it was a foreign and strange place, full of child molesters and murderers and little else (now, I am pleased to say that while a criminal element still exists online, it is mostly populated by geeks and nerds and everyone else on the planet). My brother was in California at the time, and we were still living in Florida. My brother had casually mentioned to my mom that he’d been meeting some friends for dinner – and they happened to be people who he had originally met online.
My mother, true to her specific brand of crazy, freaked out. She went apeshit. And, long story short, the evening ended with my brother meeting some lovely friends for dinner, and then returning home to find several messages on his phone from the LAPD, who believed him to be dead or missing.
My brother turned out to be fine. My mother continues to be paranoid.
At the time, though, I think her crazy made a little more sense. It was 1994: the internet was new and scary. Now, meeting people from the online realm doesn’t seem to hold the same dangers it did (or at least, the dangers my mother thought it did). Recently, I hung out with Mike Perron of PerronBrothers.com. I am pleased to say that he was not at all creepy, and that no parties involved were skinned and turned into dresses, despite repeated jokes of that nature.
It was the first time I’ve met Mike in real life, though we’ve chatted via Twitter several times. Despite being from Oregon, he seemed pretty cool, as did his cousin. However, since he could have been an axe-wielding maniac (or, from his perspective, I could have been one), it’s always good to exercise a little caution. So, in a post that would sort of make my mother proud – though she’d still be convinced of my impeding murder – I’ve wrapped up my top 10 tips for having a safe and productive real-life meeting with your online friends.
- Meet someplace public. Mike suggested a local restaurant, which was smart on lots of levels. Even if you “know” someone online, a stranger is still a stranger – you don’t want to go to their house and get into their car. Public places afford a level of safety and comfort for everyone.
- Bring a friend. Mike brought his cousin, who was lovely, and reminded me of a young Larry Kubiac. I brought my husband (who Mike smartly invited, as a preemptive move against creepiness) and I was joined by two friends of mine from middle school. I figured we were pretty evenly matched, since Mike’s cousin looked about as strong as three women. The point is? Always bring a friend, because usually people don’t get murdered in pairs.
- Don’t be creepy. As I said before, Mike invited Rand, which was obviously a cool move, and showed he was considerate enough to not even want to give the impression of creepiness. I also told Rand to not make swingers/abortion/gun control jokes. He almost didn’t.
- Listen to your gut. If someone seems creepy online, and they’ve asked to meet you in person, you can say no. Don’t worry about offending someone – they don’t know you, and you don’t know them, so odds are they won’t take it personally. And if they do? Well, that’s kind of weird in and of itself.
- Do some research. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, find out a little bit about them beforehand. Not only will this help you weed-out the weirdos (“Oh, look – he makes hair dolls. I won’t be emailing him back.”), it will also give you something to talk about (“So, I understand you make hair dolls! Me too!”). And knowing that someone cares enough to do a little bit of research (you don’t want to overdo it) is flattering and can make you feel important.
- Be wary about what you talk about. This one applies more to business bloggers than personal ones, but it’s a great piece of advice. In the online world, we’re used to the idea that everyone will see what we’ve written – and we may be quoted, retweeted, and linked to. If we meet an online acquaintance in real life, odds are, they’re going to play by the same rules – i.e., they’ll feel free to quote you on whatever you say. Keep this in mind, and only talk about things that you’d be comfortable being repeated. This is why I can freely mention that Mike sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at karaoke the night before we met him … while channeling Elmer Fudd. (“Turn awound …“)
- Bring up where you’ve mentioned them. Rand always likes to tell people when or where he’s linked to them or retweeted them. It shows that you actually care about what someone has to say, and it opens up the door for reciprocity – I love it when networking actually works.
- Have an escape route. It’s always good to have something (real or fictional) planned for later, should you need to duck out early. If your online friends turn out to have an unhealthy fascination with Charles Manson, skin bunnies in their free time, or, worse still, think Titanic was a good movie, you will have a legitimate excuse for not being able to join them (“Sorry I can’t make it to the Celine Dion cover band show, guys. I’m having a hysterectomy tonight.”)
- Don’t try to figure out how you know eachother. Seriously. Mike asked me this, and it seemed really creepy for me to respond, “I follow very few people, but I happen to find you hilarious, so I randomly started following you … now give me your fingernails.”
- At a huge tweet-up? Bring a card. If you are going to a big networking event, bring business cards with you. Bonus if they have your photo on them, or if they resemble your blog in design, so people will be able to connect you with your online persona. Don’t do this if you are running from the law.
And for the record, I would totally hang out with Moon Vest in real life …