Friday, May 25, 2007

Debunking online relationship myths

By now, it seems like everyone's been in an online relationship. Oh, it doesn't have to have come as far as mine - cross-country visits, driving across the country, getting married, trying for kids - but a relationship, at the base level. Talking to someone regularly, knowing their name, building a... profile, if you will, of them in your mind. That's not even friendship yet, just an acquaintance. But the rather politically correct media has spun a few tales about online relationships, and some just aren't true.

1. Anyone who talks to a kid online is a predator.
Completely incorrect. Now, true, there are people who meet kids online to trick or force them into a sexual encounter - but that's only an extreme. In message boards and chat rooms everywhere, kids log on just as much or moreso than adults, depending on the topic. A forum dedicated to Nintendo's latest handheld is going to attract a lot of Pokemon-loving grade school kids, but it's also going to attract Nintendorks like me who have been playing Nintendo games since 1987, when the NES came out. If you stay on topic, only talk about the games, for all you know you could be in your 40s getting advice from an 8-year-old who happens to have been playing it longer.

But even in general chat and off-topic message boards, kids openly post, as kids. I have never been on a message board that had an adult-free kids room. I've also never met anyone who was known to be below... OK, let me think about this for a second... 10 I think. I know I've met a couple 12-year-olds, 14 isn't uncommon - but to read and write and use a computer and understand online communities, 10 is a bare minimum, 8 and 9 being an extreme. Most of the time, kids talk about some of the same stuff adults do.

I've seen kids post as young as 13 in anything-goes uncensored forums, where topics of a sexual and profane nature were allowed. Although I have seen kids swear, generally they swear less, in a topic people are swearing in, less than the adults. Maybe they're being monitored, but kids much more often than adults are forced to conform to a more polite, less profane personality, at least from what I see. In topics of a sexual nature they hardly ever say anything. Oh, I know they read it. But we're not talking about 1950s kids, we're talking about now. They know stuff I didn't even know till I was in my 20s, and I'm not that old - coming up on 28.

I've also seen a lot of adults show these kids respect. Their ideas are valued as much as anyone. Who you are online is somehow apart from your age, your race, your gender or sexual orientation, your religion, etc. It's more about what you say, a little of how you say it, more of the ideas you present, support, and/or oppose. I've even seen a kid - boy was probably 14 at most - running his own online business, I think it was web development, some kind of programming. He knew more than I do, and helped me a couple times, I think. I remember the dude wanted to buy his girlfriend an iMac at one point - he had money of his own that he was earning. Had his own computer, paid for the internet access himself. Kid was probably paying rent.

So it's not all negative. Yes, there are bad people out there with bad intentions for good kids, but that's everywhere. The Internet is not entirely a bad place for kids, and it offers them many more opportunities than threats. Wikipedia, Google (like Google Earth), homework/study sites, and even game communities to help with the fun stuff. And apparently they can even make money, start saving for college.

2. The Internet isn't global, that's all a myth.
Oprah - who I have nothing against - had this show, and she was talking about this couple. Oh, how did it go? Guy gets on AOL, starts talking to a girl. They get talking about personal stuff, he says he just moved to... I think Houston, TX. She says, cool, I'm from Houston. They talk more, he says he'd just come back from some club. She says wow, I've been there. I live like a couple blocks away in some apartments. He says me too, this 10-story complex called whatever. She says whoa, I live there too, on the 8th floor. He says he does as well. They exchange room numbers - they live right next door to one another, had for about six months. They get married, have a few kids, blah blah blah.

Yeah right! Come on now. How stupid do they think people are?

Sure, it's possible. Anything's possible. But if you get in a chat room, up on a message board, and you ask for an ASL Check (Age, Sex, Location check), don't be suprised if you're the only one from Hicksville, KY up there. Don't be surprised if nobody's in your state, even if you're in CA or NY. Oh, after a while you might see someone a few hours away. But the Internet is global. If you're new, prepare to meet people from other states, or other countries. Off the top of my head, I'll name places I've met people from.

Alaska, California, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Oklahoma, New York, Germany, India, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Russia...

And I'm sure there are others. Haven't talked to anyone in the Middle East (besides India, I mean the hot spots) or Asia, so far as I know. Or Africa. But all of America, Canada, Europe, and Australia are all well represented. The Internet is global - it's just about everywhere but on the ocean or the poles - but then surely satellite can get through.

3. You need a commercial dating service to find love.
The hell you do! Jen and I met on the official message board for the rock band Disturbed. The site/board were free to access. We paid for Internet access, but no third party. And for the record, that "free personality profiler" eHarmony offers, is bogus. I heard it from a few people that they spent 20-30 minutes doing it, answering questions about their personality, opinions, habit and manners, stuff like that, only to get a message that says that their profiler or whatever only works with a small portion of the population - that's why it's free. So those who got past that message had to fit some pretty stiff criteria - according to them, most of the population is undateable - or at least unmatchable.

Most of these services categorize people based on some common factors, again, like opinions, personality, habits, manners, etc. Smoker or non-smoker? Drink, yes or no? Like cats? Like dogs? Play board games? Play sports? Do this? Do that? You fill it out and narrow down the dating pool of the desired gender by what matters the most, but - oh, to contact someone, you gotta pay five bucks, and we accept Visa, Mastercard, or PayPal. Nice. Heh. Well, wake up Cupid and eHarmony customers, and smell the java beans. You wanna find someone with similar interests? Look for a fairly big (5,000-10,000 members is good) community dedicated to something you LOVE. A book/author, movie/actor, game, sport, car - whatever. Post on-topic, but check out the offtopic lounge. Don't even join if it hasn't got an offtopic lounge or two. Feel out the community and if they have a good gender mix, make yourself at home. And that's one avenue - you might want to have a few.

But then, the old rule applies - you'll have better chances finding someone if you're NOT looking. I wasn't. My father had passed away a couple months prior, and I joined the DMB (Disturbed Message Board) in July 2002, but didn't become active until later in August, into September. Jen joined a few days before me, and was active from the start. As her name was Silent Jo and she had many more posts than I did, I asked her why Silent was in her name. Apparently that's when she first noticed me. Other than that she was really nothing to me then, just another name. I had a falling out with the community and announced my departure. A stupid thing to do as I would later learn, but this was my first time. As anyone who makes a "goodbye topic" does, I checked back a week later and scoffed at all the "good riddance" posts. A few pages down, Silent Jo says something like "oh great, the one really interesting guy on here leaves". So I became interested in her. I came back, patched things up with those I had a problem with, and set out to learn more about this person who I would marry not four years later.

You can't recreate that! Stuff just happens sometimes.

4. The First Amendment protects you.
Basically, the answer is no, it does not. The complicated answer is that the First Amendment only protects you from censorship by the government and that private corporations (or other individuals) can censor you all they like. So if you're on someone else's site, and they don't like what you say, they can ban you. They can even edit your posts and make you sound like an idiot. They can even, in some situations, post your private information if you've provided it. I've been on a few boards where spammers' posts are edited and their personal information filled in as sort of retribution/punishment. You might be able to do something about that, of course, especially if it's damaging, but in the end a site owner beats a site visitor.

Even if you have your own site, your free speech is not protected, because then you have to answer to the terms of service of your host. You may not be able to host pornography, instruct visitors on performing illegal activities... heck, you might not even be able to offend your host. If they love President Bush and you write something speaking out against the President, they can pull your site. Been there, done that. (I had a site pulled because I told someone how they MIGHT find an 8 year old, out-of-print computer game.)

5. You're anonymous online.
Again, no. There are steps you can take, measures you can implement, to protect your identity online. But if you're posting on a message board, they can track your IP address, see who you are and where you are. They might not have your personal contact information, but they have your ISP's, and most ISPs also list on the IP lookup (called a "whois" search) their Abuse reporting email address, so you can be complained about, and some ISPs will contact you about it. Many message boards allow any member to list any member's posts, allowing them to easily scour your posts for personally identifiable information, such as your hometown, school you go to, where you work, etc. If you piss someone off, they might be able to locate you just on what you say.

It's worse if you have a domain registered. On the DMB (where I met Jen) we had this annoying troll. Guy went by JAW, Noah, maybe a couple others. Seemed like an OK dude at first, but he was completely intent on pissing everyone off. You couldn't find any common ground with the guy. He'd probably be cool in person, where he has to evaluate the consequences of being so inflammatory. Anyway, he got his own domain, started his own board. I don't know who did it first, but they punched in his domain and got his full name (first, middle, last), address, and I think even phone number. Maybe not - I'd probably have called him (in a completely friendly capacity). But either it was posted, or instructions on how to get the information were posted. And then all of a sudden he got real quiet, worried someone might go down to where he was and do something. Oh, he came back - he probably moved, though.

So try not to make enemies - you don't want to have to worry about that. I personally find it easier to put myself out in the open, be completely open and honest about myself. I have my first and last name up here, and I'll tell people the town I'm living in. I may hint to my profession, but I prefer to keep that detail to myself. I'm not opposed to meeting people, but it's gotta be off the clock and not at my place of employment - because in that capacity I'm representing a company, not myself - and also because you just don't mess with the job. Anyone with a fairly high work ethic will tell you the same.

In closing...
The Internet is a wonderful place for communities, and while there are some significant differences between the Internet and the real world, it isn't as bad (or in some cases, as good) as it's made out to be. Basically it is what it is. In some cases, you should take it more seriously than you do or think you should - but in other cases, it shouldn't be taken so seriously - if that makes any sense. Like, you should know that people are real. Ask yourself if you would say to their face what you're typing. And on the other hand, if you get singled out by a clique, or criticized, whatever - just know that you can close the browser any time, back away from it, or leave a community altogether. Don't think you have to come crawling back - there are literally millions of them. I have a happy marriage to thank for sticking with the DMB when things didn't look good for me, but you can't count on that. When I started my own board, I learned who my real friends were - those who followed me. The rest only enjoyed me as long as I posted on their site and didn't care about me beyond that. So any connections should come with you if they're worth a damn.


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