Gloom Cupboard introduces a new column by AV Flox about relationships, sex and the internet. We’ve a feeling you’ll Digg it.
A guy recently stopped talking to me because he didn’t feel he could be friends with my “online persona.” I’ve always thought that I’m never more myself than when I’m online, especially in unregulated forums like Twitter, the popular microblogging platform, where I spew whatever happens to be on my mind without the kind of filters that I have between myself and the so-called real world where, as a proper Stepford wife, I’d never dream of saying out loud half the things I say online.
I knew a man once who lived a double life: in one, he was a proper father and husband, and in the other, he was a tyrannical sex fiend, concerned only with satisfying his deepest and darkest cravings. He didn’t like the term “double-life,” arguing that it implied that one of the lives he led was false, a cover that allowed him to have the other life without being ostracized by his social circle. There was no cover—he wanted both. He reasoned that any person could easily have conflicting desires and that these, while contradictory, didn’t necessarily cancel each other out.
“I’m sure you are familiar with the particle/wave dual nature of matter,” he told me. “It’s the quantization of personality. See, viewed as a wave, a personality appears to be connected and complete, but when analyzed in separate particles, completely contradictory beliefs, behaviors, and energy levels can exist at separate states.”
I’m no extreme, but the concept makes sense to me: on the one hand, I’m a wife. I wear pearls. I make dinner. I attend fundraising events. I have dinner parties. I hold babies. I talk about square footage and property values and the It color of paint to put on the walls of your great room.
On the other hand, I write smut. I love “pearl necklaces.” I lead discussions about sex and technology. I sporadically grace publications with a barely concealed body. I frequent strip clubs and don’t hesitate to participate. I wander darkened alleys, eager to crawl on hands and knees through the underbelly of a city. I interview perfect strangers about how they like sex and how often, whether they have ever had an affair, whether they have ever live-blogged their sexcapades—and I do it for no reason other than my insatiable curiosity about people and, of course, sex.
Like my friend, it’s not that I feel I have to hide this drive under the guise of something socially acceptable. I do want to be married and I enjoy being a wife and having dinner parties and home-styling. But I also love sex and everything that relates to it, from the quickie you just had in the copy room to the thoughts of people who make the pleasure instruments we enjoy today, and while I wouldn’t introduce any such topic at a benefit dinner, the internet provides me with the perfect forum to do it.
And so I do. But like my Stepford self, my blog has its filters. I would never blog about something as transient as how mad I am with someone or something as silly as my new favorite YouTube video. My blog posts suffer from so much analysis and research that if I didn’t talk about myself so much a lot of them could probably qualify as articles.
Now enter Twitter, a micro-blogging platform that only allows you to update 140 characters at a time: I don’t think anything on the internet has so exposed so many particles on my wave. I’m cooking! OMG, I could strangle my husband! Read my latest article. I love Anthony Bourdain! Ugh, you guys, I’m so depressed. I’m blogging naked! I JUST HAD THE BEST SEX EVER! A client is mad at me for charging him for phone calls—where does he live that this isn’t standard? Ouch, I stubbed my toe! Score—I just bought the hottest thing at Frederick’s! It’s 8:00PM, I just woke up!
A lot can be communicated in 140 characters and even more can be communicated in a stream that runs all day long. If you’re doing Twitter right, you’re giving people a window into your life—the good, the bad and the TMI. Add to that your playlists on Last.fm, the books on your Visual Bookshelf on FaceBook, the song you’ve set on your MySpace profile, your stream on Flickr, your location on BriteKite and you’re basically providing anyone who cares enough with a complete backstage pass into your world. Seriously, one more social media tool and you’d be Nonsociety.
So when this guy told me he couldn’t be friends with my “online persona,” I have to admit I felt a little rejected.
I hate it when I’m talking to one of my non-webbie friends about someone and they ask, with condescension, “wait, is that one of your little friends online?” Like I’m six and talking about an imaginary friend.
Recently, an older friend of mine confided that she was having an affair on the internet. Well, she didn’t call it that. In her words, “it doesn’t count if it’s online.” I asked my mother, who’s in the same age range, about this and she agreed, “well, it’s not like you are really going to become involved. They’re just on the internet.”
It blows my mind that this erroneous idea about the limitation of internet relationships to transcend pixel somehow continues to survive in the face of ever-mounting evidence to the contrary.
We’re part of a mobile generation—not just in the sense of technology, though that certainly has facilitated matters. I grew up on a little island in the Pacific where it was common for people to come and go. As I got older, I began to come and go myself. Even now that I’m married and settled, my husband and I continue to buzz around the world. We can’t sit still and we’re not the only ones. Where time and geography previously stood in the way, now technology allows us not only to make connections, but foster and enrich them.
I think one of the biggest issues with cruelty on the internet today has to do with this misconception that the people with whom we interact online aren’t really people. The truth of the matter is that some of the deepest, most honest, most meaningful connections I have with people have developed on the internet—both with those I originally met online and those I initially knew offline.
“Whether you like it or not, cyberspace has become the new frontier in social relationships. People are making friends, colleagues, lovers, and enemies on the internet,” wrote Dr. John Suler of the Department of Psychology at Rider University. “The critics say it can’t compare to real relationships—and if some people prefer communicating with others via wires and circuits, there must be something wrong with them. They must be addicted. They must fear the challenging intimacy of real relationships. Is this true? Is it true that ‘real’ relationships are intrinsically superior to relationships in cyberspace? Or might relationships in cyberspace in fact be better?”
His treatise, aptly titled The Psychology of Cyberspace, which is readily available online, deals with the question of in-person relationships (IPR) versus cyberspace relationships (CSR).
“Text relationships tend to result in what’s called the online disinhibition effect,” Suler said. “Because they can’t be seen or heard, people may open up and say things that they normally wouldn’t say in-person. Self-disclosure and intimacy may be accelerated.”
Suler admitted that technology has advanced to the point where computer-mediated interaction has transcended text and can and often does engage our senses of sight and sound.
“On the other hand,” Suler was quick to note, “IPR have the advantage of touch, smell, taste, the complex integration of all the five senses, and a more robust potential to ‘do things with’ other people.”
Suler concluded that the disinhibition effect along with the time-stretching and distance-shortening qualities of online interaction make it a wonderful supplement to in-person relationships but that as a substitute, online-only interaction falls flat on its noseless, tongueless face.
“In an ideal world, we could have it both ways,” he closed. “We could develop our relationships in-person and in cyberspace, thereby taking advantage of each realm.”
What a difference a decade makes. His paper on the psychology of the web was published in 1997. The once-solid divide between online life and physical reality has long since been toppled. Nowadays, we largely enjoy both. Though there are exceptions, I wouldn’t spend much energy interacting and getting to know people I wouldn’t want to meet offline and most people I know, whether they use social networks for business or pleasure, want to meet the people with whom they interact and make every effort to do so.
Take the immediacy of the internet, the continuous fragmentation of social networks, the unavoidable stream of overshares, compounded with the inevitable face-to-face and you have the most complete picture of a person’s “wave” that you could ever want.
Which, though convenient, can make for some serious complications in relationships.
Which is why I’m here. Join me every month in exploring how technology, in particular the internet, is continuously affecting how we interact, live and love. I’m no expert beyond my social media whore credentials, and I don’t know that I’ll provide you with any kind of moral lesson, but as an old editor once told me, “you’re crazy enough to maybe be somewhat entertaining.”
I guess I should throw in a note of gratitude to the guy who doesn’t want to be friends with my online persona. He’s the one who got me this gig. Thanks, d00d. I have a feeling you and I will make good fodder for one another for years to come.
At the very least e-stalking you is a great alternative to obsessively looking for new songs for my MySpace profile when I’m on deadline.