Care to Chat?

The story of a girl

Her dark, heavily painted eyes glance up at the webcam as she checks her settings. Not self conscious, but clearly on stage already… and ready… and ready… and GO!

“Hiya beautiful peopllllllle!” (cue sweet smile, tilt of the head, quick flash of sclera). “My name’s Boxy,” she sings in her Jersey drone “and today I want to say a few words abouuut…” Her eyes fix on the ceiling and an index finger goes into her mouth as she drags out the ‘t’. She’s petit, crazy and just freaky enough to make her a little sexy.

“Oh!” she exclaims as an interrupting thought flits through her scattered brain. It renders her temporarily school-marm-esque. She wags a chastising finger at the webcam…At you.

“You’all have been saying that I take drugs! No, no, no. No drugs, no sex, no rock and roll.” she returns to her original thread smiling smugly. “Ummmmmmmmmm… I just wanted to say thatttt,” She’s weird. Compellingly weird. “I LOVE YOU GUYYYYYSSSS!” Her fingers form a heart in front of the cam.

The internet. A different culture / Internet culture

Boxy is an internet craze. Like all internet crazes she surfs on the outer edges of normal, fits nowhere and has never heard of your comfort zone. She doesn’t embarrass herself in front of the camera, although any one of us normal nine to fivers would be mortified to see ourselves cast that way in cyberspace. Not Boxy. She’s whacky enough simply not to care.

Boxy posted her first video-blog on 4chan (the site where all internet memes are born) about six years ago. Astonishingly, the titanium-bound jadedness of the 4chan audience melted in front of her sheer loopiness. 4chan fell in love that day, and Boxy became their mascot, their Delilah and their little sister. The content of her spoken blogs was puerile at best, mad at worst, with dippity-doodah on the side and an extra serving of ‘WTF?’ all over the plate. Over the next two years, Boxy posted some twenty similarly inane video blogs until eventually harassment from the internet swarm put a stop to her burlesque. The same audience that loved her tenderly at the beginning had grown obsessed – was it obsessed? Who knows what goes through these geeks’ minds. They hacked her MySpace account, sent strange parcels to her house, phoned her parents proposing marriage and generally carried on like a pack of twelve year old boys trying inappropriately to get attention from the prettiest girl in the school by bullying her arse thoroughly.

Behind the scenes

It’s easy to imagine Boxy tripping through the whole experience on daffydil heads but what did the girl behind the kooky avatar on the video blog really feel? Who was she anyway, a confused child? A young woman struggling to come to terms with her identity? Did she receive the libertine attention of 4chan with lunatic delight? Or was she dismayed? Did the pranksters of 4chan ever think that they would terrify or humiliate her? Most likely not. Their frivolity wasn’t aimed at that young woman. It was aimed at Boxy. Boxy who has never existed. Boxy who never had real feelings or genuine human responses.

Online I’m Martha, offline I’m Arthur / Online personalities

If she was in any way typical of the web community, Boxy had an online personality and an offline personality. The internet can be acutely intimate but it is intimate one step removed. You are face to face and not. You chat your heart out but no one sees your polar-fleece and slippers. Strangers share their most intimate anguishes, sexual fantasies and histories. We are at once too protected, too private and too exposed. We are at once real and fantastic. Free to express ourselves in whatever way we choose without consequence, without limits; floating hearts in space. And therein lies the problem. The reality and the fantasy can disagree brutally with one another.

“Not me!” you say? Think about it a little. As we flit around our chatrooms, our Facebook accounts and our forums we tend to do much the same thing as Boxy, albeit on a lesser scale. We don’t exactly lie but we also don’t present our real selves as we are, sitting late at night with the cat on our laps, coffee growing cold and full ashtrays stinking at our elbows. When we communicate online we are not past tired and a little bored. There are no bags under our eyes. Unhindered by our physical reality we are charming, brave, sexy, flirtatious and funny. We ROFLMAO without ever cracking a smile, we (blush) furiously while feeling nothing but tepid amusement and we colon-bracket wink saucily at one another when in fact, we’re slumped over the keyboard with deadpan faces and our arses hanging out of our tracksuit pants. We laughingly accept propositions that would normally result in a smart slap across a cheek with no more than a raised eyebrow. We tell. We reveal. In the absence of the sheer effort required by blatant face-to-face intimacy we are flat and safe behind the glass screen, protected by the incalculable space between enigmatic servers. There is no inhibition, no involuntary body language. No commitment. But all this titivation has its consequence.

Consequences

You can’t shut down feelings when there is intimacy happening, even if it’s castle-in-the-sky intimacy over miles of blackness and emptiness and crackling wires. People fall in love over the internet. Not freaks. People just like you and I fall in love with complete strangers based on their text or Skype messaging. There are stories of people leaving their spouses or their cities to climb on that big jet plane in pursuit of internet love, stories of people who go as far as entering into online marriage vows (presumably adjusted for whatever criteria matter to them) and stories of people who are content to have long term romantic relationships through a telepresence on Skype with someone they never intend to meet in person. 28% of respondents to an online survey confirmed that their internet romance was their primary source of social interaction. Many confirm feeling closer to strangers on their Facebook page than they do to their own family. There are people asking questions like “is having cybersex cheating?”, “if you spend more time with someone online than you do with your spouse is it an affair?” and “how safe are our teenage girls from adult web predators?”

This is clearly not some harmless online recreation. It is a too-much, too-fast forum in which the time and effort commitments required from normal human interaction are absent while the potential to affect our real lives profoundly and unexpectedly still exists. It is becoming painfully evident that we are naïve when it comes to conducting ourselves safely or appropriately within the context of cyberspace. We may think of it as a playground, but there is a good chance that our entry fee will turn out to be an unwitting offering of raw, misplaced human emotion.