Upon Meeting A Friend in the Digital Age

James Corbett, October 12 2019

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 co...

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