My friend Christine, in the midst of a divorce, spent a recent Sunday at a Korean spa. As she lay naked in a steamy room on a plastic-coated table, she couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that the oddest part of this whole scenario was not that an older Asian woman clad in black underwear was scrubbing off her outer layers of skin; it was the fact that she had come to the spa with a group of strangers she had met on the internet.
“We connected through an invite-only Facebook page, and when I was online ranting about catching my husband cheating on me, they all rallied around me,” Christine explains. “They go to this spa all the time, and this time they told me, ‘You’re coming. You need this.’”
That Christine spent a full day sweating buckets with veritable strangers shouldn’t come as a shock. Meeting online friends IRL is a definite thing — everyone from BuzzFeed to Reader’s Digest has written how-to guides for turning your computer buds into real life BFFs.
Laurie Empen, a Chicago-based specialist in the dynamics of play and interaction in women as well as children, attributes the phenomenon to the increasingly huge role technology plays in our lives. “It used to be that women stayed home and met each other at the park, maybe at church or other places that lent themselves to face-to-face interaction,” she says. “Now we have laptops, smartphones, but we’re still social creatures by nature — how do we find our tribe?”
The answer, apparently: We swipe right.
I’ve done it myself: My friend Eryn and I initially met as we were simultaneously commenting on a mutual friend’s post on social media about five years ago. She was funny as hell and, after reading a few of her quips, I DM’d her to tell her so. We kept up a wonderful, flirty-in-a-girl-crush-way dialogue for a few weeks before finally meeting offline at that mutual friend’s wedding shower. The chemistry was still there in person, and we’ve been close ever since.
Not everyone makes the leap as seamlessly, though, Empen says. “It’s one thing to feel like you connect online, but does that can transfer into real life, in real time, when you’re not behind a computer or cell phone? We all have a tendency to project what we want that other person to be, but have to actually let her words and actions unfold.” Empen notes that there can be a propensity for women to fall harder for online friends during times of vulnerability — in the haze of new motherhood, say, or during infertility or divorce.
My sister-in-law recently gave it a shot, venturing out for drinks with some friends she met through an online Mom’s Meetup sort of thing. “I don’t know most of them, but lots of them are friends of friends of friends,” she describes. “The group is a place where you can go and admit you haven’t showered in three days or your kid fell off the changing table and nobody will judge you. A lot of us have babies and end up on our phones at 2 a.m. during feedings … we’re all in the same boat.”
That’s how, on a recent Saturday night, she found herself getting dolled up and then announcing to her husband, “ All right, I’m off to meet my Internet Friends!” (His reply: “OK, text me if you get catfished and end up locked in a basement.”) The event, a wine party for about 100 women in a group member’s backyard, was a blast; plans for the next one are already underway.
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
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