It was with thoughts like these swirling around my head that I found myself in Kansai airport a week ago waiting for a man I knew as well as any friend...
It's hard to believe that I've been collaborating with James Evan Pilato on New World Next Week—our weekly news update series—for 10 years now. It's even harder to believe that after all these years of talking about a real-world meet up with James that it finally happened. But if you've seen my latest video/podcast, you'll see that we managed to combine the two events: A real-life meet up here in Japan for the 10th anniversary of the series.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this podcast. A few months ago, when it became clear that this was really going to happen, I realized I had no idea how tall Pilato actually is. In fact, I even made a bet with Corbett Report video editor Broc West: If Pilato was at least six feet tall (as I speculated) Broc owed me a curry next time he's in Japan. If Pilato was shorter than that, I'd owe Broc a bowl of ramen (his favorite Japanese dish).
It struck me right away how very 21st century this bet is. How many people in the history of humanity have never actually stood face to face with someone they consider to be a friend? Sure, it's happened—pen pals and other unusual long-distance friendships have existed in the past, after all. But it's only in the online era that people have colleagues, associates, friends and even hook ups with people they've only ever known as on-screen avatars or (at best) Skype images.
For me, this raises all sorts of intriguing questions. What does it mean to be friends with someone you've never met? What kinds of things are left out when we lack real-world contact with people with whom we interact? Are there ways to compensate for that? Is online friendship really possible, or is it just another digital phantom, deluding us with a simulacrum of human contact?
Given that I have made my living online for the past decade, it is perhaps not surprising that this is not the first time this question has crossed my mind. I've had the experience multiple times now of calling someone on Skype for an interview for the first time and being told "you sound just like you." It's a strange observation, but of course it is strange to talk to someone for the first time when you've listened to their interviews or podcasts for years, isn't it? And how much stranger is it, then, to actually interact in person with someone you've only ever known online?
In fact, such was my preoccupation with this topic that one of the first-ever subscriber exclusive videos I made explicitly asked the question, "Is there such a thing as a virtual community?" In the video, I explored the challenges and possibilities implicit in the new online communities that are popping up around shared interests, The Corbett Report community being no exception. Is meaningful connection with people scattered across the globe possible? If so, what does it entail? Are there ways to compensate for the obvious difficulties that such long-distance communication inevitably presents?
So excited was I about the concept that I decided to create a much less formal environment for the video than I was used to. Instead of presenting information at my desk in a cold, analytical way—as was my wont—I decided to invite the audience into my kitchen for a casual chat over a cup of tea. These were my subscribers, after all; the few, the proud, the strong, the Corbetteers! Surely if online community was possible at all, it would be possible among the like-minded truth seekers who congregate at The Corbett Report. Right?
I posted the video, excited for the interaction that it would foster . . . and then immediately received the answer to my question. One of the first comments was an indignant response by a subscriber who was incensed that the mug that I was drinking my tea from had a "Kit Kat" logo on it. Was this some kind of product placement? Was I just another corporate shill?
I must admit, I was flabbergasted. That Kit Kat mug is something that my wife and I have had for over a decade now. It was offered as a free promotional gift at the local supermarket. I didn't think twice about drinking from it on camera. But for that subscriber, it was surely a sign that I was trying to advertise a toxic corporate product . . . to the 150 people who bothered to watch the video.
It immediately struck me that meaningful online community is an illusion. I was not inviting friends into my kitchen for some chit chat over tea. I was instead allowing complete strangers to come into my home and evaluate it for their infotainment. A friend in your home might remark on the Kit Kat mug and make a joke about you being a corporate shill. In that case, you could tell your friend the story about the promotion at the supermarket and that would be it. But in the case of strangers gawking at strangers on the internet under a pretense of digital familiarity, the discussion quickly descends into virtue signaling and condemnation.
There is something vital and real about actual face-to-face human connection. Not only can that ineffable je ne sais quoi of real life interaction not be found through online community, the digital world provides a false sense that you really know these avatars with whom you interact. That they're your "friend."
It was with thoughts like these swirling around my head that I found myself in Kansai airport a week ago waiting for a man I knew as well as any friend . . . except for the fact that I didn't quite know what he would look like. Would he look "the same" as he did on Skype? How long is his hair, anyway? Does he have a limp? Heck, he may even have been legless for all I knew. Like everyone else who watches New World Next Week, I'd only ever seen the upper third of his torso.
And then, just when I was beginning to wonder if it was possible that James and his wife had come through the gate and walked right past me—neither of us recognizing the other in this disorienting 3D world of actual human bodies and real life objects—there he was, waving at me with a big smile, his wife by his side. And for the first time, the Jameses met.
So I'm sure you're wondering whether Pilato really is six feet tall. Do I owe Broc a ramen or does he owe me a curry?
You still don't know, do you? You can speculate, of course. You can make any calculation you want from the video of our chat . . . but you'd be foolish to do so. As any photographer will tell you, if you can't see the subjects of the photo (or video) from head to toe, you have no way of gauging their height. Are we sitting on an even surface, or is one sitting higher up than the other? Is one of us closer to the camera? Am I slouching? Is Pilato sitting straight? And how big are the trees or other objects in the background against which you could gauge our heights, anyway?
In the end, there's just no way to know . . . unless you're there in person. And that is exactly the point.