The story of Manti Te'o and how he was duped -- or we were -- has captured the attention of this country. Eventually we'll all hear what really happened, whether he perpetrated a hoax to make himself seem more sympathetic or whether he was the victim of a horribly cruel scam by some very mean girls. However, just because Te'o's true love turned out to be nothing more than an avatar doesn't mean all online relationships aren't real, as Timothy Egan writes in his New York Times Op Ed piece "The Hoax of Digital Life":
No, that's the nature of people who develop relationships through a screen. The Internet is the cause of much of today's commitment-free, surface-only living; it's also the explanation for why someone could tumble head-over-heels for a pixelated cipher. Online dating was only the start of what led us down this road.
I've met plenty of commitment-free, surface-only people in my lifetime, and most of them were IRL (in real life). The Internet just gives these people, who would be like this anyway, another avenue to pursue less-than-meaningful relationships.
No matter how much some -- especially quite a few baby-boomers -- may long for "the good old days" when people only met on the telephone or in person, those days are gone. Virtual relationships are an integral part of society today, from online dating to job interviews, from Ebay purchases to manuscript editors. Even those who claim to be uninvolved in social media and pooh-pooh the notion that relationships can be formed and grow through connections made on a computer screen are unable to avoid the reality of customer service via email, or college admission interviews via Skype.
I've made connections on social media that have enhanced and improved my life and my career dramatically. I've fully embraced the opportunity to make new friends whom I have never met in person -- and make no mistake, these are my friends -- and I'm building a business with two women, one of whom I've only met via Google Hangout. I have friends and colleagues who have created successful companies with a lot of help from online networking and social media connections. My 70-ish year-old mother met her husband, whom she married in 2011, on an online dating site. There are countless examples of positive relationships formed through social media.
That Te'o fell deeply in love with someone he had never laid eyes on speaks more to his issues than to online connections. As much as I enjoy my friendships and business relationships that are virtual, cementing them with in-person meetings is vitally important to their continued growth. Recently I had dinner with 15 other midlife bloggers who I have been talking with in a Facebook group for the past five months. It was as though, despite this being our first in-person meeting, we all knew each other so well already, and the dinner was more a group of old friends than of new acquaintances.
That's not to say that one shouldn't be cautious and tread lightly when entering into a relationship virtually. Protecting ourselves and our children from online predators and dangers is a must.
I hope Manti Te'o can recover from this heartbreaking incident and move forward in his personal life. I have to wonder whether, if he'd won the Heisman, he ever would have come forward with this story. Manti Te'o is a cautionary tale on how not to have virtual relationships -- but he's by no means the norm.
Whether in person or online, we all need to be careful about letting in those who aren't genuine and don't have the qualities we want in the people we let into our lives -- whether through our door or through our computer screen.