A Social Disorder  by Gloria Mitchell, art by  Bina Altera

  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' Chat Room?"
dot        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 socially awkward."
       So just who are these people, and what do they get out of the chat experience? 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."
dot        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."
       Still, there are meaningful relationships formed this way, or so Aleister emphatically proclaims.
dot        "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 service's customers "members" (as opposed to the coldly impersonal "users" or "subscribers").
       "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 million.
       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.
dot        "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 person."
       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 the Net.
       "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.
dot        "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 judgments."
       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 real."
       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."
dot        "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!"
dot        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 (http://www.thepalace.com), which 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 the Baldwins.
       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."
dot        "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 talking.
       Smutty pictures you can get any ol' place.


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