The Magical Confusion of “In Real Life” (IRL) vs. Tiny Zoom Screen (URL).

May 13, 2021

The Magical Confusion of “In Real Life” (IRL) vs. Tiny Zoom Screen (URL).

May 29, 2023

As the world opens up, many of you may begin to notice a strange phenomenon. I am starting to call it the “phantom IRL” effect. It goes something like this: After 14 months of lockdown you finally get to meet someone in person you haven’t seen in a really long time, or someone that you have only known through zoom or some other type of video-based communications.

Maybe it is a co-worker, online yoga teacher, someone you have met on a virtual date, or a colleague in your profession.

The strangeness of even BEING with other humans outside of your pod is strange enough. But after that, a peculiar thing happens. There often comes a moment when you look at each other and realize, “hey, have we met before?” or, “wow you are taller than I thought.” You may feel a strange disconnect happening in your brain trying to titrate the time apart vs. ease of the re-connection.

Your brain thinks you have been “In Real Life” with that person all along. It literally takes a moment to process. The phantom IRL effect is the moment the brain registers that there is actually no gap in connection, intimacy or bonding. Being together in real life becomes a delightful “A-ha” moment.

I had a moment like this recently. My family trekked to the new MEA ranch in Santa Fe for a much needed getaway, as well as to host the final MEA Online live event. Chip was there, as well as Skylar Skikos, our newest co-founder. Jeff and Christine were due to arrive on my last day.

As I walked into the ranch house to join Chip (IRL) for our weekly virtual team “huddle” meeting, I was so thrilled to have a hug and settle into being in the same space. The next day, we gathered around a gigantic fireplace to host our final MEA Online live event. It was only near the end of the two-hour program that we looked at each other and said, “When have we last seen each other?” It took a moment to realize it has been two years.

The moment was caught on camera for the group to experience that moment of “phantom IRL” and the beauty of digital intimacy in real time. Nearly 300 people gathered online from over 20 countries and we laughed, cried and bonded together to the astonishment of all.

The bonds between the students were deep, real and raw. Friendships are forming, connections are deepening, and many felt they feel closer to this group than the friends they have known for decades.

Did it matter that Chip and I have not seen each other in two years? Not at all. Has a virtual office impacted our work together as a team? Only in the best of ways. Digital intimacy comes in many forms to make up for not being in the same place.

Chip and the team receive reports from me on Loom videos that I embed in emails. Sometimes I send Marco Polo videos when I am out and about and have an idea to share that requires more nuance than a text. We are on Zoom meetings as an entire team at least once per week and daily with individual members that span three countries and an 8-hour time difference. We send quick photos or notes on WhatsApp.

Turns out I didn’t get to see Jeff or Christine, yet my sadness was only fleeting: I “see” them all the time after all. Some team members I have never met, but would go to the mat defending them in a heartbeat.

I looked up the definition of URL the other day. I had forgotten what the letters meant. Do you know what they mean? We assume URL simply means, “online,” but the technical acronym stands for “Universal Resource Locator.”

Yes. Think about those words for a moment and how potent they have become.

During a global pandemic, we were blessed with having a Universal Resource Locator to keep us close. To build bonds, to deepen connections and to understand what a global family really means. Prior to the lockdown, MEA had about 800 alumni who attended a workshop on campus. In less than six months, over 450 people got to experience the magic of MEA Online and have enriched our alumni community immensely.

That is my definition of digital intimacy. We have learned how to harness a Universal Resource Locator to build movements, strengthen families and remind our hearts that love is an invisible force that transcends form.

Our next MEA Online starts June 5th and I can’t wait to meet the new group modern elders. Click here to learn more about the course, and take advantage of $75 off by using coupon code MEA222 during checkout. Hope to see you in class!


A digital course designer, facilitator and host, Kari Henley is a social entrepreneur, writer and developer of “digital intimacy” tools that build meaningful connections and global communities. She is also an MEA alum and Director of MEA Online, an eight-week program of “digital intimacy” focused on transitions.

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