From BBM to Wisconsin: Realizing The Dream of Meeting My Online Best Friend

Ever think about your best friend and think about how you met? The strange interactions that led you to trusting that person enough to share with them your deepest fears, joys, secrets, vulnerabilities, and the other things you can’t talk about with just anyone? When I met my childhood best friends eighteen years ago, our first communication was an exchange of insults.

When I met her, it was a tweet over phones.

If you know me on social media (namely Twitter, but sort of Facebook as well), then you know who this “her” is.

September 2013 is when I like think my Twitter account was “really born.” I’ve actually had it since 2011 but never could quite grasp the concept or see its necessity in my life. While struggling with how hashtags worked and what the “@“ meant, I followed a bunch of people who I believed had interests similar to my own (or, at the very least, shared one interest with me). Roger Federer had lost in the 4th Round of the US Open (darn you, Tommy Robredo) and Rafael Nadal ended up winning the tournament that September over Novak Djokovic in the final (still wondering how that happened). What that meant for me was the beginning of a small period of time when I didn’t want to look at or talk about tennis. So I pursued one of my other passions on social media; BlackBerry.

Trying to, in a sense, “establish myself,” on Twitter, I followed a ton of BlackBerry users and employees and got over the shyness of tweeting “at” someone rather quickly. It was during this period of Twitter nascence that I stumbled across a discussion about virtual keyboards and haptic feedback or speakers or something about a BlackBerry device. It was between a man (whom I had recognized from other BlackBerry communities) and a girl I had never seen before. I assume I had some kind of an opinion because I responded. I clicked on her profile.

Lauren Kortbein @laurenkortbein

She was very clearly someone who’s passion for BlackBerry far exceeded my own and someone who was quite recognizable and outspoken in the BlackBerry community. If my goal was to build a foundation of users based on my passion for BlackBerry, she was someone I had to follow. So I followed her. She was just another BlackBerry user. Nothing more. But she was probably the first BlackBerry user I followed that was close to me in age (it appeared, anyway), so I found her slightly more relatable than the rest.

Reflecting back, I don’t remember how many times I responded to BlackBerry-related tweets from Lauren. Her tweets were always so amusing and so full of excitement. Her obsession with cars became equally as apparent as her passion for BlackBerry and technology in general. But she was still, very much, a normal 21-year-old college girl. One particular interaction about the movie Bridesmaids comes to mind, particuarly because I responded and was compelled to promise Lauren I’d watch the movie (which I did end up doing).

We quite clearly had many exchanges over that autumn and winter. By February and March, I’d say she was my most frequent Twitter mention. There was seldom a day when we didn’t interact with each others’ tweets.

By mid-March, the 140 character restraint Twitter imposes on its communications felt far too cramped for what felt like a burgeoning friendship, and one that could work. I sent her my BBM PIN on direct message through Twitter and we finally could talk in private with messages of any length. She was the same on BBM as she was on Twitter; funny, bubbly, easily excitable, and very, very friendly.

Lauren was one of the primary reasons I decided to upgrade my Z10 to a Z30 when I did and she was also the one who celebrated with me the most over Twitter and BBM. It was then I really began to feel like we were friends. Over the next few months we exchanged BBMs and had a few conversations here and there. Over Twitter, thanks to my big mouth, I inadvertantly promised her an Audi R8 for her birthday (which is a the end of May). As someone who takes promises very, very seriously, I did what most poor college students do when they can’t afford something; I improvised. I sent her a model R8 and a birthday and made absolutely certain it would arrive on her day. The idea of sending a gift to a girl I’d known only online was a bit strange, but her reaction justified it instantly. I’d do it again.

The following months that consisted of my summer almost exclusively belonged to Lauren. It started with a discussion about an episode of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show and our relationship really took off from there. I wasn’t a particular fan of the series but I looked forward to our “Catfish Wednesday” where we’d both watch the newest episode together, but apart. Catfish was only one of the many shows we watched over the summer. If you follow Lauren, then you’re very well aware of her fondness for Netflix. The next three months was

The craziness of watching anything with Lauren

The craziness of watching anything with Lauren

filled with shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Wilfred, amongst others. One night Lauren came home after watching the movie The Fault in Our Stars and told me how much of a fantastic book and film it is. I ordered the book instantly and finished it just a few days later.

I should say that none of the above television shows or books are in my usual scope of things I enjoy watching. I don’t really like reality TV (though us watching a show like Catfish is really quite poetic) or comedies like OitNB. I’m much more into heavy stories, psychologial shows, cyberpunk, and science fiction. But I was changing as a person. I was becoming more open-minded about what I chose to watch and, let’s face it, I took any excuse I could to talk to Lauren. Anything at all. That’s how much I enjoyed our time “together.”

Our relationship was changing, too. Whereas prior to the summer we just casually talked every once in a while about BlackBerry or something we saw on Twitter, we began to talk more about what we were watching, our lives, day-to-day things, and outlying acitivities. If something happened, Lauren would be the first person I’d tell about it. It was quickly becoming the case that she’d be the person I’d talk to after waking up and the last person I’d say “goodnight” to at night. She was the only one of my friends with whom I could talk to over the course of an entire day. My friendship with her was different than any of my others, despite being much shorter than most.

The day we had our first video chat was significant in that it was an otherwise miserble day for me. Earlier that same day I had received my first speeding ticket and just talking to her salvaged my entire day. Actually, it did more than simply “salvage” it; it turned it almost completely on its head. That’s what a friend is supposed to do.

As the summer grew to a close, I was sad that the whirlwind of an incoming semester was going to really limit the amount of time I can spend talking to my friends and what I can do for my own pleasure. Still, we maintained a fantastic relationship. However, it was quickly approaching the point to where phone calls, photos, video chats; these mediums were not enough. I had come to the point where I really, really wanted to meet her. I wanted to meet Lauren. But I needed an excuse.

My excuse came in the form of a trip to Louisiana. My dad (who lives in Louisiana) didn’t seem as though he’d make it home for Christmas. So I decided to take a trip to the warm South just after Christmas. I’d bifurcate the trip so that the first half would be in Louisiana and the second half would be in Wisconsin. I though I had a foolproof plan.

When I asked Lauren whether it was even a good idea to meet, to my surprise and relief, she not only loved the idea, but really couldn’t wait for the day to arrive. I had honestly thought she’d shy away from the idea; that I was much too boring of a person worth her meeting, let alone stay in her house for four days. But she was excited and that really helped me in my determination to make it work. We had actually joked about one of us visiting the other over the summer, but it just seemed to be one of those things you only envision actually doing. Never did I imagine it may become my reality. I had dreams of it. I was on the cusp of fulfilling it.

Explaining it to my parents was a battle I was dreading to have to fight. My sister and mom knew who Lauren was, but neither was convinced I knew her well enough to actually go see her. When I told my mom, she panicked. For her, this was a new leap on so many levels. Keep in mind that my parents grew up in India and my mom has really only been in the United States for about two years longer than me. Her reservations are fueled by cultural and, to a very real extent, practical concerns. For one, this was the first time I was going to be traveling to see someone not in my family. Moreover, no one but me acutally knew Lauren. Secondly, I was going to see a girl (a white girl, at that). This sounded off so many cultural alarms. Her concern instantly turned to who else would know. I had no intention of keeping my trip a secret, and why should I? I was proud of Lauren; proud of who she is and proud that I can call her my friend. Up until the day I left my mom kept trying to sway me away, if not from the trip then from the idea of staying with her in her apartment. But I couldn’t.

I didn’t bother explaining Lauren to my father. As traditional as my mother is, my father is ten times as worse. There’s nothing wrong with being traditional, but when it errs on the side of unreasonable, my explanation seemed as it would fall on deaf ears. So I lied and told him Lauren was actually a male friend whom I had met in university and transferred to the University of Wisconsin. Yes, it was wrong to lie, and I felt even worse telling Lauren that I had to lie about who she is just so I could go see her.

I never really gained full approval from my mother, but I didn’t have time to wait on her either. So I bought my tickets for New Orleans and Minneapolis. The dream to see Lauren one day was no longer a dream; it was a reality in the making.

93 days marked the difference between purchasing the tickets and the date we’d meet. That’s all.

Turned out to be a longer 93 days than either of us had envisioned. Over the course of that period, the both of us had switched platforms; BlackBerry 10 to iOS. Had this been any other relationship this change would’ve been so trivial it wouldn’t have even been worth mentioning. But the only reason Lauren and I knew each other was because of our mutual passion for BlackBerry. Ironically by the time we’d meet, neither of us would be on the platform that brought us together.

As our BBMs became texts and then iMessages, we grew even closer over those 93 days. As the semester became more stressful it felt like Lauren was a constant stream of support, and I was one for her (I hope, anyway). It felt great. There were many instances where, despite the fact that we had never met, it felt like she was more than just a friend. I never told her that, of course, but it did.

Before our meeting, I did a bit of research into others who had met their online friends for the first time and what the experience was like. While I was beyond excited to finally meet her, I was also very, very afraid. Many aspects of this trip scared me. For one, Lauren loves to drink and even works at a brewery. I don’t drink alcohol at all. I worried it would make her feel strange drinking around me. I worried that maybe we wouldn’t actually like each other in person, at least not as much as we did over text. Finally, I was concerned that our friendship wouldn’t survive the meeting. There’s something special about having a friend you’ve never met. A certain secrecy surrounds them. Would we lose that which made our relationship unique? I had so many doubts. I carried them all the way to New Orleans and Minneapolis.

The excitement of meeting Lauren kept me awake on several occasions far longer than I would have liked. I was okay with that. Seeing the countdown tweets decrement each day reminded me how close I was to living a dream. I only hoped that it was a dream for Lauren, too. Before long, January 8 arrived.

One of the most significant text exchanges we've ever had

One of the most significant text exchanges we’ve ever had

I spent more time that morning getting ready to travel than I had on any previous morning in recent memory. I had to look my best. I was meeting the girl to whom I had given the better part of the last year. Our meeting was delayed about four hours because of brutal weather conditions in Chicago and Minneapolis. It didn’t do much to calm my nerves. After all, as much as I knew Lauren, I was still meeting her for the first time. It’s a strange dynamic. The delay felt painful, as if some higher power was trying to drag this out as long as possible. The taxi to the runway felt like it took forever. But I was soon on my way to Minneapolis; to Lauren.

Landing in Minneapolis and just walking out of the gate was an event in itself. For the first time, we were in the same place, separated by just yards and feet. Admittedly, I tried to prolong the meeting myself by going to baggage claim first and then finding Lauren. But this poor girl had waited far longer than she should have. I had to find her, and find her I did.

The tall, beautiful blonde-haired girl with gorgeous blue eyes and an even prettier smile. I found her. I embraced her and I really didn’t want to let go. I finally had my Lauren.

All the initial awkwardness I was warned about didn’t exist between us. It was like old friends meeting for yet another time. That night we went out shopping for a bit, had dinner, and made the hour trip home.

There were so many instances during which I just looked at Lauren in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it was really her walking next to me, sitting next to me, talking to me. There were times when I couldn’t believe I was sitting in her beloved galactic blue Jetta (which is quite a stunning car, really). Surreal is the only word I can use to describe what I felt over the four short days together.

The organizer Lauren and her team designed for her class. She had one made for me with my initials engraved. On top, a pamphlet from the Leinenkugel brewery where she works.

The organizer Lauren and her team designed for her class. She had one made for me with my initials engraved. On top, a pamphlet from the Leinenkugel brewery where she works.

While together, we watched quite a bit of Netflix. Something as simple as sitting on the same couch in the same room and watching the same thing together was significant in itself. We had watched so much apart so this was something I had truly relished.

Before going to Wisconsin, many of my friends remarked that there was “nothing to see there.” I truly enjoyed myself. From the Leinenkugel brewery (where Lauren works) to the snow-covered plains and small, far away towns, Wisconsin has an identity of its own. For someone from the hustle and bustle of southeastern Pennsylvania who’s grown up in and is used to life in the city of Philadelphia, Wisconsin was welcome change. Everyone seemed kinder and more personable. The towns with their French or Native American names seemed further apart and quaint. It was hard to believe that I was even still in the same country. But I would go back to Wisconsin again, and just because Lauren lives there, but because it truly is a beautiful place.

I knew that Sunday was going to come quickly and it did. It’s always difficult saying “goodbye” to a loved one but it’s even more difficult when you don’t know if or when you’ll see the other person again. It was a tough morning.

Lauren and I are very different people. She’s very much a typical American girl as much as she is different. She’s from a quaint town in Wisconsin and has lived a fairly normal life. I’m the son of immigrants from India and grew up in the metro area that is Philadelphia. She’s a fan of Aaron Rodgers. I’m a fan of Roger Federer. She loves comedies and reality TV. I love fiction, adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. Lauren’s car is her pride, her obsession. She spends hours tweaking it, cleaning it, and making it, well, whatever you make cars. I spend hours perfecting my serve, getting the toss right, the speed right, making sure no one can tell where that ball’s going to land. Lauren and I represent two different but equal sides of America. It was a mutual passion for BlackBerry that brought us together and, even though neither of us used a BlackBerry when we met, our relationship evolved past our mutual interest through a medium still
in its relative infancy. We’re two people from two very different fragments of reality, but we have a real relationship. A real friendship.

When I reflect back to what Lauren initially started out to me, it amazes me that we’ve become as close as we have. If someone had told me just six months I ago that I’d actually go to Wisconsin to see her, I’d have doubted them to no end. But even then, the signs were there. I changed because of Lauren. I became open to things, media, ideas, relationships I had been so closed off to before I knew her. She changed me. I had never worked harder for any relationship in my life before I met her. She’s made me a better person. She’s made me want to become a better me. That’s when you know you really care about someone.

A lot of you already know Lauren. If you’ve never met her, she is one of the happiest people you can meet. It’s not a false happiness, either. She exudes a general content with life. She’s the kind of person you want to take with you everywhere you go because she can find fun in even the most mundane activities. Life is just more fun and enjoyable with Lauren. She’s also much, much prettier in person. She’s gorgeous in her photos, but they don’t do her complete justice. What stuck me though was how memorable her laugh was. I’d heard her laugh so many times on the phone, but hearing her laugh in person is so different. When she laughs, you want to laugh with her. It’s so genuine.

I’ve learned so much, from Lauren, from going to see her, from even just talking to her. She is one of my closest friends and she means more to me than most people know, including her. I am forever grateful to her for all she did for me over those four short days, including just allowing me to go see her. Life’s different now that there’s no countdown to look ahead to completing, but I do hope that one day I see her again and I cannot wait until that day arrives. I’m so glad of all the friends I’ve made through Twitter and BBM, this is the one that’s grown the most and the one I took a leap on. I would jump on the opportunity to do a trip to Wisconsin again.

There are times when I wonder that, had Lauren and I met under more conventional circumstances, whether we’d be as close as we are or even friends at all. It speaks volumes about the power of social media and the technology we have available to us. An entire friendship formed through services like BBM, Twitter, Facebook, text, Facetime, iMessage, email, and even traditional mailing before actually meeting in person. It’s amazing to think that, because of the technology for which Lauren and I share a deep passion, a girl from Wisconsin and a boy from Pennsylvania, both from two very different frames of reality, can form as close a bond as we have.

Recently, whether it be at work, on the train, or at school, people complain to me about social media and technology. They claim that the relationships formed through those mediums “aren’t real,” and are “meaningless” and “impersonal.” They back off a bit when they later ask what I study in university and I tell them “computer science.” They feel as though they had just insulted my livelihood. But that’s not what I take offense to. It’s this relationship I’ve built that takes the hit. This is what I feel compelled to defend. This is why I can never agree with those people.

What I’d like anyone reading this to take away from this is that there is nothing wrong with forming a friendship through social media. In today’s world, it’s incredibly normal and don’t allow anyone to tell you otherwise. And if you’re really as close as Lauren and I are, then I encourage anyone to take the chance and meet their online friends. As I mentioned before, I read a lot of blogs and personal experiences before solidifying my resolve to see Lauren. This is me paying it forward. Social media is an incredible means of communication. For her, it’s an indispensible tool in her field of study. For me, it’s not only what I dream to work on and to improve, it’s what helped me meet and come to know someone else whose life I can put ahead of my own.