If you’re like most people, you have more “friends” than you’ve ever had before… if you count Facebook friends and Twitter followers. The barrier for entry into a relationship with someone has been lowered to a single click, and this has lots of benefits: the general public has unprecedented access to public figures and experts in various fields, celebrities seem more human, and, most importantly, you can keep up with what those high school friends are doing without actually picking up the phone. And while it’s true that this loose, non-committal form of contact can be a great way to keep tabs on someone you’re not really interested in having in your life, it also works the opposite way: when you friend or follow people you don’t know, social media helps you passively consume information about this “friend’s” relationships, lifestyle, whereabouts and opinions. This can create the illusion that you know a stranger very well, and it can lead to real-world awkwardness.
Not sure what I mean? I recently heard the following exchange at a party:
Guy: “Hey, how’s your grandmother doing?”
Girl: “I’m sorry, who are you?”
Guy: “Oh, I follow you on Twitter. I saw that she was sick.”
Girl: “Oh. Um. She’s better, thanks. Uh, could you excuse me?”
This is a very clear example of someone failing to grasp the one-way nature of most social media communication. He obviously hoped to come off as caring and thoughtful, and she thought he was a creepazoid.
It can be confusing to maintain social graces (after all, if she’s posting it in her Twitter feed, doesn’t she want people to ask about it?). The key thing to remember is that social media requires ordinary people to manage their own public communication and image (aka: do their own PR). Sadly, many ordinary people aren’t great at doing their own PR. They don’t think very carefully about who will be receiving the information they send out, or how it might be perceived. There’s a reason Facebook firings happen so often!
Many people who post on social media sites view their posts as ephemeral, or imagine them having a targeted audience even if they’re posting publicly. (Someone who posts about her grandmother might do so to update the people in her feed who know her well, but if she doesn’t imagine anyone else caring about it, she’ll be put off when a stranger mentions it to her.) This isn’t very logical, but as I mentioned before, using social media requires a specific type of thinking that some people are great at, and others… not so much.
So how do you make sure things go smoothly when you meet a “friend” who’s actually a stranger (or relative stranger) in real life? How do you cross the digital divide?
These pointers will help you avoid freaking anyone out:
- When you meet, identify yourself as a follower/”friend.” Even heavy social media users can feel threatened by someone who spouts information about them that they haven’t shared directly. Even if they know that you’ve gotten your info from status updates, they might be put off by a stranger approaching them as though they’re already friends. Play it safe, and, when introduced to them (or introducing yourself), mention casually that you’re Facebook friends or that you follow them on Twitter. This approach has two benefits: first, it directs the conversation to something you have in common, and second, it lets them know where they can find you, and why you already know so much about them.
- Identify common connections. If you follow this person on Twitter because your friend mentioned how great her tweets were, or because you have some shared acquaintances, mention that. The less you seem like “person from the internet who approached me out of the blue” and more like “person who travels in my circles but I’ve never met,” the better. If you have no connections in common, but you like their tweets, it’s totally appropriate to say that. Just keep in mind that even though you know a lot about them, they might not follow you or read your updates, so you should approach the conversation as though you’re recently-introduced strangers. Talk about something other than Twitter, if you can. If you follow them because of a shared interest, use that as a springboard for conversation, but don’t dwell on what you read. Concentrate on the person in front of you, and make a here-and-now connection with them.
- Be Honest. If you’re absolutely dying to talk about something they mentioned online, be direct about it. If you know from their status updates that they like country music, don’t work in a Garth Brooks reference and then act surprised when they squeal “He’s my favorite.” If you read something in their feed that you’d like to address, ask them about it and let them know you read it. Trying to be clever or sneaky with information someone else has shared is dishonest at best and downright creepy at worst. Be upfront about the fact that you know a little about them — that’s a perfect transition to letting them know that you’d like to know more about them.
- Follow Up. Once you’ve connected in person, it’s easy to say, “I’ll drop you a line on Facebook sometime!” You have to actually do it if you want to be real friends. When you see something that reminds you of the person, or are invited to an event you think they’d like, forward them the info with a note reminding them of how you met. “Hey! We met at Jason’s party the other night. I really enjoyed our conversation, and thought you might like this event/link. Hope to see you again soon!” This will help cement their memory of you as a real person, not an avatar, and will open up the door for connecting in-person in the future.
From there, you’re in a great position to follow up and invite them to hang out in person. One final warning: not all Facebook friendships are destined to turn into real-life bonds, so if you don’t click in-person with someone you admire online, don’t sweat it. With the number of “friends” we all have these days, there’s probably a better fit out there in cyberspace somewhere. You just have to find it.