Meeting Internet Friends

A safety guide for meeting friends you might have made over the internet.

This isn't meant to scare anybody off the idea of making "real-life" friends through the Internet - countless relationships, even marriages, have been formed on-line and parlayed successfully into what netspeak calls "IRL" - in real life. The highly publicized cases of people turning out to be not quite who they said they were (at best) or downright dangerous (at worst) are just that: the highly publicized exceptions.

Still, that doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise all reasonable cautions. The victims you've read about in the news were not unlike yourself: they'd formed a relationship on-line, trusted the other person, and trusted the judgments they were making with regards to that person. Intuition is a valuable thing, but it can't take the place of "hard evidence."

One of the things people most frequently overlook when trying to assess whether or not their new on-line friend is really on the level is his or her e-mail or message posting habits. A person who claims to work a nine-to-five job is probably going to have predictable e-mail habits that mesh with those working hours - if your nine-to-five friend has never e-mailed you before 11 a.m., something might be a bit off. The same goes if the person is frequently on-line very late, but still claims to have regular working hours: at some point, you should notice certain patterns, and if they don't match up to what the person tells you about their life, watch out. A person who always e-mails from work but never from a home computer may have a relationship or living situation they'd rather keep hidden from you, so be wary of unusual excuses about e-mailing habits.

You have probably heard this elsewhere, but it can't be emphasized enough: your first meeting should be in a public place, and you should tell a friend about it. You might even want to bring along a friend for an extra margin of safety, or make the meeting a sort of impersonal one: arrange to get together at a large-scale social gathering if at all possible. The intensity of on-line relationships is such that you may feel a great connection to somebody you barely know at all in the "real world," so be wary of any rush towards intimacy on any level. Think of things in terms of introducing the person to your friends rather than moving across the country!

There are obvious exceptions, and this should not be your sole criteria, but it is useful if the person you're going to meet "IRL" has a well-established on-line presence. Look for things like a home page with facts (everything from a resume to a picture of the person in the city they live in) rather than abstract "I enjoy"¦" information that could apply to anybody. A real name that can be verified is much more "trustworthy" than a person who exists simply as a "screen name." Look to Usenet - you can search Usenet discussions on a variety of on-line archive services - and see if that person has a history of postings there (and, of course, see what kind of history!). If they've participated in a discussion group for any length of time, the odds are good that they've met with others from the group "IRL." Don't be afraid to ask other people for a bit of background - the person with nothing to hide should not have a problem with this. If you can't find any "references" - no history of on-line activity, no other on-line friends - be exceptionally cautious.

Earlier on, we almost dismissed intuition. Don't. While it should never be your sole guide, always err on the side of caution when it comes to gut feelings. People make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable for reasons, and you shouldn't ignore those feelings. Again, a person who is genuinely worth your time will understand. You might cut a meeting short by apologizing and saying that you had a good time, but don't want to take things too far on the first meeting - no other explanation should be necessary.

All this research, intuition and second-guessing of intuition, and considering chaperones and so on might seem a bit paranoid and over-the-top, but you shouldn't be embarrassed about keeping your own safety paramount. A reasonable combination of common sense and your own discretion will lead to a lot of good friendships, and keep you and trouble well separated.

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