Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two former online adversaries who became friends. They met arguing in the comment section of a Facebook forum dedicated to promoting science, where each thought the other was misguided. When they started chatting privately, and eventually met up in person, they found more common ground than they expected. They discuss how they’ve shifted each other’s thinking and how they’ve built a friendship based on debate and—sometimes—agreeing to disagree.
Colleen Diessner, 40, a stormwater-management worker who lives in Seattle
Drey Pavlov, 39, a physician who lives in Seattle
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Tell me how you first encountered each other.
Drey Pavlov: I used to be very active on various online forums. I got into Reddit, Facebook. If you know that XKCD comic where there’s the guy on the computer and his wife is saying, “Honey, come to bed,” and he says, “But somebody’s wrong on the internet”—that was me.
People believe obviously wrong things, and I couldn’t understand why. I was seeing a lot of bad science and a lot of bullshit pretending to be science, and I was fighting against that.
By the time Colleen and I interacted in a science Facebook group, I was on the downslope of my keyboard-warrior phase and was starting to feel pretty jaded. She met me when I had good arguments but a bad attitude. At first, I think she thought I was just an asshole. I was very blunt. Not derogatory or anything, but I would say, “No, you do not understand this concept properly.” She started interacting with me and saying, “I think you’re wrong about this.”
Colleen Diessner: As a reaction to the proliferation of misinformation coming out of the 2016 election, I sincerely thought I could help by providing more information. But in that particular forum where we met, the politics won out. I didn’t feel like I was saying anything controversial at all, but they were making really disgusting comments. It’s become fairly toxic, so we both disengaged.
I’ve been a vaccine advocate for many years. Then there was a measles outbreak in southern Washington. I joined a group of people who were trying to spread science-based information about vaccine safety. That topic blew up in the forum.
Beck: What were your impressions of each other when you were interacting in the forum?
Drey: She seemed representative of someone on the left—further left than I am but not crazy—who actually cares about science. I saw her as being misled in a lot of the same ways I had seen in other people.
Colleen: Similarly, he represented a certain kind of voice that I was used to seeing, and it pissed me off. I felt like it was uncaring and unsympathetic. I didn’t really understand where he was coming from. We were both wrong about each other.
A lot of people’s political opinions, mine included, were emotionally informed. Looking back, I don’t even think that Drey and I disagreed on those things, but I was coming from a place of These are bad things and I want them to stop and he was coming from a place of Here’s a bunch of information; how can we develop policies that will actually do what you want?
Drey: I’ve always been a giant nerd, and I read a lot. I’m really into science-based medicine. Funnily enough, vaccines got me as well. I remember a commenter on some forum saying something about vaccines that was so patently absurd. To me, he might as well have been saying that water is dry and the sky is green. I approached it like Wow, this guy’s really ignorant. Let me share some information to enlighten this person. When I did, I got what turned out to be my first anti-vaccine troll. You can give people all the information in the world, and they’ll still come to the wrong conclusions.
The internet became this place where I could try totally different personas. I’m like, Okay, let me try and be the bad cop, or the good cop, see what kind of response I get. It was a learning process: If I phrase it this way, it comes across better.
Colleen: I’m also very data-driven, and I do look at research as well. But he was more debate-oriented, and I was more discussion-oriented. I was bringing things in—What about this? What about this? He was like, No, no, no. We need to isolate the problem in order to solve it. Over time, our interactions have become a better balance between the two.
Drey: We’ve accommodated each other. You will actually debate some points and get into the nitty-gritty, and I will recognize when you’re being more discussion-oriented. You’ve seen me a few times being like, Oh wait, that was overly, stupidly pedantic. I didn’t need to go down that path. Let’s back up.
Beck: When did you start talking one-on-one?
Colleen: I was writing an article about lowering vaccine rates around where I live, to submit to a local publication. Then I thought, I’m not a medical professional, so where’s my credibility in writing this? I knew that he was a doctor, so I consulted him.
Drey: I gave her some nice, honest feedback. She told me afterwards that humanized me and made her realize maybe I wasn’t just a flaming asshole saying stupid shit online.
Colleen: After that, we went back to arguing pretty quickly—in private messages, because that’s how I had contacted him to ask him to edit the article. There was a point where we realized that we were talking past each other, and we actually held more of the same stances than it seemed. As you find more common ground with someone, they become more of a person.
Beck: How do you identify politically?
Drey: I’m an independent. I tend to consider myself socially and politically liberal, but I do have some conservative-leaning sides. My wife is from rural Nevada. I go hunting; I have a number of guns.
When I go to Nevada and hang out with people wearing red MAGA hats, I can get along with them just fine. Then I come home to Seattle, and I can get along with people like Colleen just fine. But there’s definitely a gap there that is hard to bridge.
Colleen: I’ve been a lifelong Democrat voter, and years back I probably would’ve been considered more progressive. I don’t think it’s any secret that politics have become more extreme. Now I would consider myself to be pretty centrist or maybe left of center.
Beck: Have you met in person?
Drey: She actually freaked out a little bit early on, like, “Wait, are you really who you say you are? Are you trying to stalk me and kill me?” At one point I was at work and she was messaging me like, “Prove it to me. Take a picture of yourself right now.” I took a photo of myself in my scrubs with my hospital ID on, and I sent it to her.
Colleen: I was definitely paranoid. My husband would make jokes that Drey was really a serial killer who was just playing the long game.
Drey: To be fair, online relationships are more normal for me. I have a good friend who’s welcome in my home at any time; I’ve never even heard his voice. For Colleen, that’s very different. At one point she was like, “Can we please just actually meet in person?” I said, “Sure.” So we met for coffee.
Beck: What was your reaction to seeing each other in person after all that time talking online? Was it what you expected?
Colleen: He was way nicer. We walked in, and we just started talking. There were no weird pauses; it wasn’t awkward. Immediately we picked up the normal conversations that we have.
Suddenly you’re thinking about a person who isn’t just letters on a screen but who has a life, a family, and a job. A lot of that is lost online. You might be engaging with someone, but you don’t know anything about their past or all of the things that happen to us that influence how we think and feel. Engaging with someone in person—when you’re looking at their eyes, their hand motions, and their emotional reactions—makes the arguments a lot softer.
Drey: I did not feel like I needed to meet in person, but was happy to do so. I had a little bit of trepidation because I wasn’t sure how she would view me. I’m 6 feet tall, and I talk very loudly, so I definitely can be intimidating in person.
Colleen: It’s an interesting friendship because we’ve hardly ever seen each other in person, despite how close we live to each other. We have completely separate lives.
Drey: I felt a real turning point in our friendship when we really realized that we share pretty much the same values as far as how we want society to be and how we want people to interact with each other. We just have a different approach for how to get there. Even to this day, we can get pretty heated, until we finally say, “All right, we’re going to keep disagreeing on this, moving on,” but that’s happened less and less.
Beck: Are there examples of things that you’ve changed your mind about or shifted your thinking on because of your friendship?
Colleen: I was really ignorant on gun violence and just guns in general. For me, those topics were clearly emotional. But Drey has guns, and he knows how to shoot guns.
Drey: I took her shooting for the first time.
Beck: That was one of your few in-person interactions?
Colleen: Yeah, we met up at a gun range.
Drey: With my suppressed AR-15. She did great.
Colleen: You explained how these different guns worked. Actually holding the gun and shooting it was really powerful and terrifying. It made me realize the immediacy of the danger, but also that a lot of people who advocate against gun violence don’t actually understand which guns work which way. I can see now how there are disagreements, because some of the policies that people come up with on the left, people on the right are like, “You’re referring to these guns the wrong way.” There’s a real information disconnect. Most people want gun violence and police shootings to stop, but if people don’t come together and exchange information, we’re not going to develop policies that work.
Drey: Colleen brings in perspectives that I hadn’t really considered. We talked a lot about the #MeToo movement, for example. She would bring in the humanistic side of what it’s like to be a woman, or to worry about sexual assault. She allowed me the opportunity to take my very hard point and soften up the edges a little bit, and understand how that might interact with real people instead of just the data in my head.
Colleen: That would be an example of something that we both agreed on essentially. I was coming from an emotional standpoint of I just want these things to stop. He was coming from a perspective of Right, but what is the best way to do that?
Beck: How often have you met in person? Was it just coffee shop, gun range, end of list?
Drey: Another time, we hung out on Alki Beach. There was one other time—I’ve gotten you into crypto a little bit. We met so I could give you my spiel about why I thought there was even any point in putting money into this, and later I came to your house to help you set up your digital wallet. You not only entertained that, but you listened and put some money into it.
Beck: What have you learned from your friendship?
Drey: People have a lot more common ground than we realize. A lot of forces—whether it’s the media or Big Tech—are aligned to help us focus on the differences. Outrage generates clicks and eyeballs glued to screens. This relationship was proof that if you find that common ground, you can actually have a productive, interesting friendship.
Just because someone has an idea you might think is wrong, that idea isn’t the only thing that person is. We reduce people to one snippet of one idea and extrapolate everything else about them based on that.
I love fitting in with red-MAGA-hat-wearing folks, and then, when they ask me about something that they’re wrong about, I stand my ground. The look on their face is priceless.
One time I went shooting, and afterwards I heard through a friend that someone asked, “Is Drey a liberal?” We didn’t talk any politics out on the gun range, so I don’t know what tipped him off. My friend said, “I don’t know if he’s a liberal, but he’s a good guy.” Breaking boundaries and understanding that people are more complex than just one view or one facet was a big lesson as well.
Colleen: For me, the moral of the story is that people on the internet are human beings, but also that there is worth in keeping people in your life who disagree with you. It’s a weird friendship because we don’t interact much in person, but it’s like having a sounding board—“Hey, I saw this article. You know more about this; what’s your take?” We’re all exposed to so much information; it’s good to have people who are looking at it in different ways to help you see things from other perspectives. I think that’s something people should try to do in their families and their friend groups—to listen more and be open to being wrong.
If you or someone you know should be featured on “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at email@example.com and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.