You people are sick!
That seems to sum up the message to Internet users in some of the stories
circulating from the media. Oh, it
may be all right to hit AltaVista for a search on ferrets, or to send
e-mail to your mom. But users who connect up to interact with each other
via IRC, online services or Web chat
rooms seem to be suspected of using their modems only for sending smutty
pictures to one another, and
perhaps to hapless 6-year-olds for good measure.
And if Net chat participants aren't porn-peddling pedophiles, they're
"addicts" who've somehow fallen into
the sad delusion that an inanimate computer can be a source of
companionship and caring. The unappealing
image is of a bunch of computer nerds, fearful of rejection in the "real"
world, fumbling at their keyboards for
some approximation of human interaction.
Indeed, Bill Gates, everyone's least-favorite bespectacled dweeb, enthused
about the Net as a gathering-
place when he went on David Letterman. "Ah-huh," said Dave. "And would
that be in the Pathetic Losers'
Maybe so, if you imagine that everyone who chats
on the Internet is kinda like
Bill without the billions.
Jan Fernback, a doctoral candidate at the Univer-sity of Colorado whose
dissertation focuses on "cyber-
socialization," doesn't think they are.
"People who go on chat lines may actually be more social than some
others," she says, contrasting chat to
Usenet groups, where participants have a chance to think carefully about
what to say. "In real-time chat, you
have to be on the ball--it goes against the myth that these people are really
So just who are these people, and what do they get out of the chat
Aleister, a 38-year-old New Yorker, thinks that the opportunities for
socializing in "real time" (that is, away
from chat--usually abbreviated to "RT") are insufficient for most people.
"If it's an addiction, it's an addiction to companionship and friendship," he
says. One of the advantages he
thinks chatting has over, shall we say, 3-D interactions, is that it removes
restrictions on what people can talk
about. In chat rooms, where the participants are anonymous and the
discussion covers taboo topics from sex to
religion, people feel free to talk "honestly and revealingly. For most of us,
the opportunity to have that kind of
dialogue left after we left college."
In the grown-up world, he points out, "there's a certain face you have to
keep in the work force." And even
outside of work, not everyone has opportunities to make lots of friends.
"Most people don't pick their
neighbors. And if you happen not to like yours, it's not like you can knock
on the door the next day and hope
there's someone different there."
On the Net, by contrast, there always is someone different there: Chat users
can reach out far beyond their
immediate surroundings to find like-minded people. Across the globe,
Sparaxis, a South African journalist,
seconds the sentiment. "It's one of the great advantages cities have over
towns," she says. "There are more
people, therefore more people who might be family. And now...well, there
is an entire planet full of people to
discover. Of course the cyberplanet is dominated by North Americans and
Scandinavians, so one can't be too
dewy-eyed about the possibilities of world peace suddenly breaking out, but
Still, there are
meaningful relationships formed this way, or
so Aleister emphatically proclaims.
"People's feelings are real, no matter what the cause of them--whether the
person they love is standing in
flesh and blood before them, or thousands of miles away on the other end of
a network connection." He
believes enough in the veracity of this Net-assisted bonding that he acted
as the officiant at an online wedding
ceremony last year, in which two women who had never met in person
exchanged vows in cyberspace. Since
then, the practice of staging virtual weddings--complete with invitations,
ceremonies and cyber-champagne for
the celebrants--has caught on at some chat sites. "I've had a couple of
other requests to do weddings, just
haven't been able to find the time. One woman even offered to pay a fee,"
he recounts, amused. "But of
course, I told her I don't do this for money!"
And then there are those who do. Daniel Jamal, author of Online Marketing
Handbook and 101 Businesses
You Can Start on the Internet (Van Nostrand Reinhold), has been a sysop
for CompuServe's forum on public
relations for 10 years. He's enthusiastic about the benefits such specialized
chat rooms can have for
professionals: "People can network, make contacts, get ideas on pricing--
what they should charge clients,
what they should pay freelancers, how to write contracts. I've heard about
new trends and developments I
wouldn't have found otherwise."
It seems to be chat as ersatz social life, however, that attracts the most
participants, whether they use the
Net or online services. Jamal, who was on the public relations team that
launched America Online, recalls how
AOL chairman Steve Case came up with the idea of calling the online
customers "members" (as opposed to the coldly impersonal "users" or
"It makes it sound like a club," he says. "Just a little paradigm shift,
reframing, but it makes all the
difference." According to Jamal, presenting AOL as a community of
members, "emphasizing chat," was a big
factor in the leap AOL's membership has taken from 500,000 to five
If AOL is cozily exclusive, the Net has more free-for-alls: general chat sites
that are open to anyone with a
connection, and that function as electronic homes for people of varying
backgrounds and nationalities.
"Cyber-backpacking" is the phrase Alinta, a 32-year-old Australian job
counselor, uses to describe it. "You
get to meet people from other countries--it's made me a more aware sort of
And as a single mom, she's found chat "liberating." "Once the kids have
gone to bed," she says, "you can't
so much as sneak down to the corner market. But with the Net, you can get
online and have amazing sexual
experiences--or chat with some sweet old lady
in England about how she makes pumpkin scones."
Roxy, also 32, married and a mother of two, felt "hermitized" at home
before she discovered chatting on
"I injured my back and could no longer work in my retail job," she explains.
To earn money, she started a
home day care operation. That allowed for her physical limitations, but she
says that "in my business,
conversation is on a 2-year-old level." And her house, she adds, "is located
on 32 acres of woods. No
neighbors and I didn't know anyone in the area--nor was I able to travel out
to meet people. My operating
hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., taking up most
of the day, plus setup time and cleanup time--See where the Net ties in?"
And indeed the Net, in addition to
being right there on your desk, is open 24 hours.
"Adult conversation would describe what I needed," Roxy says. And what
kind of conversation has she
found? "Everything! You name it, we chat about it! We tease each other,
comfort each other, laugh, cry--all
that a family would do and more. We've filled voids and gaps in our lives,
grown and gotten to know one
another in a way that RT has never been able to offer." Chatting, she says,
"holds no boundaries, no limits, no
Similarly, Makeda, 29, from Colorado, says, "I've built friendships here that
have been deeper and more
sharing than ones I have in ėreal life.' We talk on the phone, send pictures
of ourselves, our kids. I have a few
friends who are almost like immediate family. I've seen people rally around
and support" financially, as well
as just with an ear or a shoulder--a woman who was in an abusive
relationship. With no other outlet but her
computer, she found support, built her self-esteem, learned that life was not
supposed to be like it was for her.
She and her daughter are doing very well by themselves now. Those
relationships mean a lot to me. They are
Thomas DiPiero, Ph.D., a
professor at the University of Rochester who has taken an interest in the
sociological aspects of chat, bristles a
bit at the imposed distinction between chat and "real life." "Of course it's
real," he says. "It really is very much
like the previous generation's fascination with pen pals. You wouldn't see
the person you were writing letters
to, but no one said that wasn't real."
"The interesting question for me is why we pathologize it, why make it into
an 'addiction?'" he goes on to
say. "That seems to mask a funny anxiety about how technology works in
our lives. There's a
concern about the growing gap between the technological haves and have-
nots, and people seem to be
pathologizing any behavior that points to that gulf."
While chatting as an activity is a real thing, participants may find
themselves to be in a fantasy world in that
it's possible for them to be anyone on the Net.
Even that can have its "real" effects, however. Perry, a 22-year-old student,
says he's "more outgoing" in
"VT" ("virtual time," in contrast to "RT"), but that the ability to overcome
his shyness and chat has triggered
an ability to do the same in other areas of his life. Through chatting, he
says, "You get a sense of what you're
capable of. I mean, if it is seemingly so easy to be this outgoing in VT, then
what's stopping you from doing it
in RT? I've sort of gained a 'What the heck, just go for it,' attitude from
chatting on the Net. I just think, 'If I
can do it VT, why not RT?'"
And that boosted confidence does carry over, he finds: "I've used it
whenever I hesitate to talk to a pretty
girl, even if it's just to say hello or talk about an assignment in class with
them. I guess I've always been
intimidated by beautiful girls!"
Hey, who isn't? But online, it isn't hard to be a beautiful girl, much less talk
to one. Art, a 25-year-old
HTML coder from Chicago, points out that in the avatar-based Palace chat
allows users to select an image to "be" while chatting, "anyone who chooses
an attractive female avatar" gets
instant attention. "It seems to really, honestly affect that person's
desirability. Even if we all know at some
level that it's only an indication of how that person wants to be
perceived, we're programmed to respond to it."
If it's easy to get attention by just claiming to be gorgeous, it's a good deal
less so to ascertain who really is
good-looking. And yet one of the benefits of chat, participants say, is that
you can't sort out the Barneys from
Tiphany, 19, from Canada, says, "I'm heaps more tolerant of VT people
than RT ones. What I mean is, in
VT I don't see what people are wearing, what they look like, their tone of
voice, even age and stuff like that--things that in RT would maybe put
me off people. Everyone is acceptable."
And when that "blind" exchange of
words leads to intimacy and trust, people can and often do take their chat
relationships into real time, as
Tiphany exemplifies. In her recent travel to Australia, she stayed with her
"closest VT friend."
"We're very different," she says. "I don't think we'd ever be friends, if we
just met in RT--but we got
comfortable with each other long before we ever met!"
Finding people to "get comfortable with," people whom circumstance,
personal prejudice or simple
geography might have kept away from you, is perhaps the most compelling
reason to get on the Net and get
Smutty pictures you can get any ol' place.