Find some commonalities
There are many reasons why your path might cross with another person's path online. Maybe you're involved in a business networking group, an artist's forum, or a support group. Whatever the case might be, these kinds of commonalities can lead to fast connections. Such was the case for New Yorker Suzanne Zuppello when she and a woman from the U.K. began talking in a private Facebook group for women with the BRCA genetic mutation for breast cancer. Eventually, the pair discovered they were around the same age and dealing with similar struggles. "I think because we shared this rare experience of having a major preventative surgery, we already felt a mutual line of trust," says Zuppello.
Engage in some back-and-forth exchanges
Does your new friend have a likable sense of humor? Are they really great at dispensing advice? If you're trying to strengthen the association between you and your new online bud, take the step of initiating a conversation on topics that are of common interest to the both of you. Marisa Zeppieri never expected to make a good friend while playing Xbox, but that's exactly what happened. She and her husband Mick met Andrea and Mark when they were randomly teamed up during a game of Halo. The foursome was able to talk over headphones and immediately clicked. Zeppieri recalls she and Andrea shared some banter over their "inappropriate senses of humor" and the fact that both husbands were Navy men.
Don't be in a rush to meet face-to-face
Shared interests are a hallmark of great friendships, and Zeppieri and her husband began playing Xbox regularly with Mark and Andrea. "Over time, we started this ritual where we would play one or two nights a week with each other–sometimes until three or four in the morning." After logging many hours behind headsets and video games, these husband and wife duos, were finally ready to take their communication to the next level. Zeppieri says, "The key is really feeling someone out and talking to them on a regular basis. Social media can often be a good indicator of someone's personality. I don't think we would have ever met if we hadn't had dozens of hours of phone time, and see each others' lives play out on Facebook." By then, the couples knew they were all on the same page. Similarly, don't be in a rush to meet your online pal in person until you feel completely comfortable with him or her. (See the photos you should never, ever post online.)
Kick the online friendship up a notch
If you've been messaging and commenting on each other's social media accounts for a while, ask your virtual friend if they'd be willing to exchange phone numbers, FaceTime, or Skype with you. Ryan Stewart first met her online group of friends while she was searching for other people who had Lyme disease. As a newly diagnosed patient, Ryan felt alone and scared. "Thinking of my closest friends," Stewart says, "we gained trust by offering our phone numbers and emails to communicate outside of social media constructs." As the communication increased, the relationships grew, notes Stewart. "I also send out Christmas cards!" she says cheerfully. Of course, you may find some people prefer not to give our their personal info. If that's the case, you might find your relationship-building efforts are better spent elsewhere. Or, you may be fine with keeping the friendship solely online. Do whatever feels comfortable to you. Many people feel their online friends are real friends even if they never meet face-to-face. Either way, make sure not to make these social media mistakes that could hurt your relationships.
Be there for special circumstances
We all need people in our lives to celebrate the ups and support us during the downs. Social media makes it easy to comment on a friend's accomplishments or send them well-wishes when their having a rough time. In fact, it's not uncommon for some of our virtual confidantes to know more about us than the friends that live in the same city. Lisa Killion first connected with two women while she was seeking support groups for parents of children who have Lyme disease. Killion says, "Facebook has been a boon to parents of children who are ill. I have several close friends whom I consider 'sisters,' and we message privately." It's this social media "sisterhood" that has allowed Killion to both receive and give support during a very challenging time in her life.
Be smart about the meetup
Now that you've talked, Skyped, and FaceTimed, you're probably ready to meet your online friend in-person. But safety is your number one priority, so tell someone where you're going, and don't forget to check in a few times during the meetup. It's also wise to meet with a group of friends in a public place, advises Killion. Even her support group meets in a public venue, so group members know they're meeting in a safe space.
Manage your expectations
Although you've had a digital look into your online friend's life, don't be alarmed if there's some weirdness between the two of you when you first meet. You might expect to jump right into a conversation, however, things don't always go as planned. Don't get discouraged. Instead, take a breath and let the enthusiasm of the moment calm down a bit. For Zuppello, she didn't expect to feel the initial discomfort of meeting her friend in real life. "It was a little weird at first–making small talk even though we'd already gotten past all that in our online conversations. But then we got settled, and it was great. I felt so relieved in knowing I'd invested time in such a great person," she says.
Nurture the friendship even after you meet in person
Staying in touch is important to build lasting friendships with your online friends, especially when trust is formed by a unique set of life circumstances, set of ideas, or events. When your in-person meeting is over, continue to feed the relationship by staying in contact and supporting one another. Zuppello shares these insights after her online pal became an IRL friend, " I've learned so much more about her that we are truly friends. I can ask about her family or partner and have a frame of reference. She's a fully formed human to me now, so it's not just about what brought us together on that first real-life meeting anyways. She's now someone I would hop on a plane to go hang out with in a heartbeat."