I don’t pay any attention to football, college or otherwise, and hadn’t heard of Manti Te’o until his “fake girlfriend” story hit the news last year. I found his story oddly fascinating, and a quick internet search turned up a number of articles about similar online scams. The interesting thing to me is that so many people lie on the internet for no other reason than boredom, loneliness, and curiosity about how other people will react to them. There usually isn’t any kind of tangible physical gain for the perpetrators, and often there isn’t a tangible loss for the victims. However, it almost seems worse to me to be stealing things like trust and intimacy, rather than money, from people.
These types of stories make me a little uncomfortable too because they bring to the surface the feelings I have underlying many of my internet interactions: is this a “real” event? We are sharing ideas and writing intimately about ourselves, and my mind and heart have been profoundly affected by interactions I have had with people online over the years. On the one hand, you could argue that it wouldn’t matter whether I’ve interacted with people who are authentically who they claimed to be. When I am debating ideas about literature or commiserating about parenting with another person online, does the content matter more than the person who is presenting it? On the other hand, in an online environment, identity and authority seem to matter even more than in other situations because they are the only cues we can rely on in our interactions. I have also seen too many cases of harm being done by words that were carelessly typed by someone who forgot that a real person was sitting there reading them.
During the last nine years since I started blogging, the internet has gradually become more and more a part of my life. I spend a lot of time writing here and on my personal blog, reading and commenting on blogs, and doing stuff on Facebook. I am hesitant to fully condemn the internet as being ‘not real’ or as merely being a time-suck that is killing my brain cells. For nearly nine years I have written a personal blog that has been a way to hone my writing skills and to share a part of myself with my family and friends. I love being part of this blog, which has published writing by dozens of talented women and serves as a community for LDS women. Through blogging and Facebook I have also connected with a community of people who have some connection to being LDS and gay, and are trying to navigate that whole mess of contradictions. Facebook has allowed me to stay in touch with good friends from various points in my life. Many of the interactions I have had in these settings, though taking place online, have been very real. They had a significant impact on my life and on the lives of everyone involved.
I think one thing that has made my internet experiences more real and more valuable is the fact that I try to temper them with lived, non-virtual interactions with the people involved. When I started using Facebook I created my own personal policy of not adding anyone as a ‘friend’ unless they were someone that I knew in person and had interacted with at some point in my life. I don’t generally add friends of friends or even people from my ward or from work that I don’t really know well. Most of the blogs I read right now and comment on belong to friends that I do occasionally see in person. I get together with staff from Segullah in person whenever I can, and I try to go to conferences and other events so I can meet people there too. In a time when more and more of our discussion is taking place online, these kinds of conferences and casual get-togethers are even more important. They help us remember that we are dealing with real people, not just words on a screen. They remind us that, while the life of the mind is great and that virtual connection is valuable, there is nothing quite like the type of real-time discussion you can get with a group of people gathered around a table in one room.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet some people I usually only work with virtually. It felt good to spend a little time putting faces to names, to hear their actual voices, and to have a casual chat. Now when I need to send them emails, I can picture them on the other end reading my words and it feels more like a conversation. I wish I could sit down with all of you who are reading this and have a nice chat. We could talk about the parts of our lives that don’t make it online, as well as the parts that do. And maybe we would eat pie; I can’t serve you pie through the blog. Until then, we’ll just have to keep typing away and do our best to remember that every screen name has some kind of human being on the other end.
How do you balance on-line and in-person relationships? What positive experiences have you had through using the internet to connect to others?