Life The first social network I ever joined, I mean online as opposed to hanging around the sixth form common room at school doing The Guardian crossword, was probably the Leeds Metropolitan University email service. A text based, Telnet terminal sort of a thing, it was in 1993 and it wasn’t out of choice but necessity. But for those of with an enquiring mind it was just possible to do the sorts of thing which would later be possible in more open environments such as randomly finding strangers to talk to by entering keywords and names into the search boxes and then emailing whoever appeared, a useful displacement activity on a wet November Sunday afternoon when we should have been working.
After a while, “friendships” would develop. Not to the point of actually wanting to meet the person, you were at university, probably in halls and already had quite enough friends anyway, but strong enough that you’d be pleased if you saw their email address and subject line if you logged onto the email server in one of those idle moments on a wet November Sunday afternoon. Quite often you wouldn’t actually talk about personal details. It was mostly chatter about the weather or films or the kinds of things people still talk about in more public surroundings now that personal emails have largely been replaced by comments under blog posts, instant messaging and Twitter.
But of course there was always the itch and there was the moment that you began to wonder what a person was like in real life. Hello, Zoe. Say what you like about Norah Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, for all the dated technology, the fundamentals are exactly right, at that time you could still conduct an online friendship with a stranger who remained a mystery, you would spend a lot of that time imagining what they were like. Zoe seemed remarkable. Funny, intelligent and sharing many of my interests and in the two weeks we emailed each other it all seemed like it was leading up to something if I could just get over the sheer horror of having to ask first and then realising I’d entirely misjudged the situation.
Well, the inevitable other element of Norah Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail played out in widescreen. I’m sitting in the computer annex, which at that university amounted to a low ceilinged musty room at the top of a Georgian building whose previous use had been a farmhouse, next to an extraordinarily pretty girl wearing a dark blue sports sweater, who I notice (not that I made a habit of spying on other people’s work but the monitors were inches away from each other) is replying to the email I’d sent to Zoe that morning the contents of which included the phrase, “and there’s this weird bloke sitting next to me who can type very fast” which given the odds and descriptive accuracy was clearly supposed to be me.
I froze. I was stuck or at the time I thought I was. If I turned to her and introduced myself she’d know I’d been looking at whatever she was typing which didn’t look too good. But if I replied, what was I supposed to say? In hindsight, with twenty-odd years worth of hindsight in fact, the plan should have been to simply have gotten up and walked and lived to type another day saving both of us the ensuing embarrassment. Or to have purposefully not checked my email. Or, well I don't know, but anything but what I did do. I replied to the email saying hello and that I was the weird bloke sitting next to her who can type fast, assuming that it would be a prelude to an introduction, us both laughing over the coincidence before deciding to go for a coffee, then a drink, then friendship and all the things that come afterwards.
The results were farcical. With her not making eye contact she began to reply to the email I’d just sent, with me unable to do much (as my heart pounded) but glance at her screen (remember, inches apart) and her stopping off mid sentence to type onto that screen to stop looking and to wait for the email which I duly did and read after she’d packed her bag and left me sitting there reading, the gist being that she was horribly embarrassed by the whole thing and that it would be best if we stopped emailing each other. A couple of subsequent replies to the contrary from me went understandably unanswered and that was that, the first offline contact with someone I met online and an excellent example of why those random email contacts were best kept virtual.
Given the number of people I’ve met on and offline since, it is strange that I remember her name. Luckily subsequent offline contacts with someone I’ve met online have gone rather better even when they’ve been just as random, though the coincidences aren’t quite as expressive given that they’ve tended to be at private views and those sorts of functions and I have my own face as my Twitter avatar. Plus we do know more about each other or tend to be capable of finding out unless there’s some so-called Catfish element and whatever it is we're interacting with isn’t real (or less real than what passes for the online versions of us no matter what we say about their accuracy). I wonder if Zoe’s on Twitter?