Saturday, 7 June 2008

Is The Internet Really Scary?

4 Haelz wrote this post about the people on the other side of the screen.

It got me thinking about stuff and things, and goodness never follows thinking...

I have attended 'internet meets' - large (and not so large) gatherings of people who only know each other through the internet. In my specific case these internet meets were for an online game called Discworld MUD. The first meet I went to was in Manchester, when I lived in Leicester. I didn't really know that many people there, not that surprising since there were about fourty or so, many of whom I'd never even spoken to online.

But, guess what? I didn't get axe murdered and thrown in the river! There was one person there who was super weird, but not axe-murderer weird, just not-understanding-social-norms weird. Sort of creepy in some ways, but mostly just weird.

At that, my first meet over eight years ago, I met the girl I am still with today. About a week or so later I was staying at her sisters house, where she was living.

My story is by no means unusual within that particular community. One guy left England and lived in America for a bit, in order to be closer to someone he met on the game and really liked. One guy left Holland and moved to England. People moved around the UK to be closer to each other.

Before the girlfriend I currently have, I'd started a relationship with a woman I'd never met who lived in Sweeden. My parents made jokes and jibed me about how she was probably a 50 year old fat balding guy from Swindon or something. I told them that they were being a bit dim. They worried because I'd never even seen her, and what if she was ugly. I asked them if what they had always told me, that a relationship should be based on who a person is, not what they looked like was actually full of crap. They said no, and tried to weasle out some excrement about how she might be putting on a front and actually be really mean in real life. I argued back that, when talking to someone in a text based environment (as Discworld MUD is) the ONLY thing that can come across is personality, and after six months of being the same person maybe she was really that person?

Now, WoW is a little different. We often use Ventrilo or Team Speak to talk to one another in real time. People's accent, pitch, tone and intonation come across. We have visual avatars which say something about what we value, not a lot, but something. But we can't see each other. We have to work with the limited information we can get about the person on he other side of the screen.

You Guild Master might have a hump and warts all over his face. It doesn't matter. If he can lead the guild, organise things for people to do and play his chatacter he's the greatest guy in the world.

That Blood Elf paladin healer who you grouped with through Shadow Labs, who kept everyone's health bar on full without losing even half her mana? She might be a severely obese chain smoker. To you she is a goddess of health bars, welcome in every group from now until the heat death of the universe.

That hunter who couldn't trap for the life of him, who didn't know when to feign to avoid pulling agro and caused more wipes than you thought possible in the Botanica run the other day? He could have been a highly paid, super-good-looking, sporty guy. It doesn't matter. To you he'll always be that huntard who needs to learn to play.

Who you are 'out there' doesn't matter once you are online. How you interact with people matters. What you know matters. People who claim that you can't judge them based on what they do on an online game are full of it. How you act on an online game, in an environment where you are faceless and can get away with whatever you like with no chance for retribution is all that matters to the people who will never meet you. I can judge you based on your actions on the online game, as that is all I know of you, all I care about from you.

I think that is the scary part for the older generation. Who you know becomes irrelivant. What mask you can wear, how you dress, the car you drive, the way you hold yourself. All of these things which they have cultivated become irrelivant. They no longer have a working frame of reference. How do they interact with someone when they can't see who they are? Some of the older generation have taken the leap. They've got online and learnt the new communication norms, the new social norms and how to decode what is going on so they understand it and can relate to it. Most will never do so.

The internet is no more scary than the real world. The people on the internet ARE the people from the real world, with their masks off, but at a safe distance. You are always in control as well. It's not like being in a city centre where you can be cornered and mugged/raped/murdered. If you don't like what is happening online you're just a button press away from it not happening any more. There is more to fear from going to buy your loaf of bread than there is to fear online. So long as you're careful with your personal information you're safe online. You can take all the self-defense classes, buy all the knives and pepper spray you like and you still wont be safe out on the street, even on your own street, a few meters from your home.

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