The dangers of online interaction

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The Internet is wonderful, right? It provides access to a wealth of materials and offers a multitude of ways in which you can connect and interact with others. But is there a darker side to the Internet? My daughter Eleanor made me watch a film last night, called Catfish. It was about a guy who was having interactions with a girl online. He had never met her and decided it was time to. The Film4 review of the film describes it as follows:

Detailing the strange twists and turns of a long-distance relationship forged over the internet between New York filmmaker Nev Schulman and a rural Michigan A sophisticated and thrilling reminder of just how malleable the notion of personality actually is, particularly when poured into the bespoke mould afforded by the internet. Reality? Emotion? Love? In an online playground, they’re as pliable as play-doh.

The photo is of an article I came across in Granada a few months ago. It was about a survey done in Spain looking at the amount of time kids were spending online. It says ‘Why are we not able to disconnect?’ It argued that many kids were spending way too much time online and that this was unhealthy. To what extent is this true? Are we spending too much time online? How real are people’s online persona? Is there a danger that by spending more and more time online we are eroding our real identity and existence?

On the whole my interactions with people online have been great. As I have said before I have got to know people better online and met new people who I later met in real life. However, I have also had some strange encounters. For example there was a guy on fb who suddenly started liking and commenting on every single thing I posted. I began to worry that he was cyber stalking me and thought about de-friending him but didn’t have the heart. So I just ignored him and eventually he stopped. A more sinister encounter was a guy on Google chat. He started saying that he loved me and wanted to marry me. And then said that he wanted to send me a package of money to pass onto a friend, as he couldn’t send the money through normal channels. I won’t go into the details, as it is too complicated. Needless to say I decided there was something very dodgy going on, so I broke off communication with him. I guess a few strange connections are to be expected and we just have to be wary and on the look out for anything odd. And I am not even going to mention  my very strange interaction with a girl in Second Life!!

We also need to be careful how we portray ourselves online; too much information can be a bad thing and I know that is a strange thing to say from someone who is generally so open online! Would welcome your comments and any experiences you have had.

8 Responses to “The dangers of online interaction”

  1. John Kirriemuir Says:

    Yep, have had more than my fair share of weird online experiences, but then again I have been online since late 1988 and doing web stuff since the early 1990s. There’ll always be odd people, no matter the medium, and the net, while it has many advantages over any technology, reduces context. Moving to the Outer Hebrides, where it turned out there was a long and very active historical culture of weird things going on online, was also an eye-opener.

    With online dating in particular, after doing this with extremely variable results (and this was always with the seemingly safe profession of dating librarians), one golden rule. If you move a relationship online from friendship to something a little more, meet the other person in real life as soon as possible. Not many months, or even one month if you’re in the same country, but a few weeks or ideally a few days. The longer it stays as an online-only relationship, the more artificial it gets and the more difficult the adjustments will be when you meet in real life.

    There’s also the fact that, as good as online is (especially for initial contact and checking someone out before committing to meeting), you can only do … certain specific things … in real life. So it’s best to move it there as soon as both parties are good to go.

    For non-relationship online contacts, if it ever makes you uncomfortable, then bail. If you think the other person is doing it unwittingly, then can ask them (once) to stop and give them a reason why. If they don’t, then bail. Always bail. Life is short, and losing one online-only contact is a time commitment you can easily fill with something else.

    With children, it’s a case of them being aware from as young an age as possible that people are different and have lots of different, not always honest, motives. They need to be clued up as much in the physical world as the online one. Some parents bar their kids for as many years as possible from online; I think this is damaging, as they need online, and person awareness skills, from as young an age as possible.

  2. Gráinne Says:

    All good points John I totally agree… Particularly re kids better for them to understand the medium and become self aware, blocking is not healthy.

  3. Mike Harland Says:

    Hi Grainne,

    I see you are already going on to cover topics I was going to remark on in your previous blog on identity.

    I think people need to think further than just the odd internet/social media ‘weirdo’. Having been harassed in the real social medium of the university hierarchy by what I learnt to be ’sociopaths’ (a bit of a catch all for the whole gamut of ASPD/anti-social personality disorders that stretch from psychopathic mass murderers, through stalkers to just plain control freaks), I soon learnt that people suffer from some form of this disorder: the main features are an insecurity in their own personal identity, a lack of empathy, and the need to feed off other people’s feelings to control them; this often manifests itself in the form of ’status disease’ in professionals/academics/politicians and the manipulations carried out to secure high status. The other important factor is that there is no cure for this behaviour, it often cannot be diagnosed without the person’s cooperation, and most people who have suffered at their hands say the only way is to get as far away from them as possible to cut off all contact.

    Getting back to social media therefore, the problem as you stress is that of ‘knowing the real personality’ behind the external persona. In real life this can take a decade to spot - one of my experiences involved a clever and adulatory student who later became a postgrad and then a fellow colleague in the department who finally conspired to get rid of myself and two other colleagues; so even in the real world, ‘knowing’ somebody is not that straightforward. In social media, I would say that a large percentage of the people you ‘know’ are actually only their virtual persona and presence, admittedly less so in an academic group or what younger people believe to be their ‘closed’ friend group (but anybody with children will know how treacherous those early friendships can be and how social media has led to bullying being so rife).

    It is also naive to talk about blocking or cutting off links to people you have found to be ‘weird’ or ’suspicious’: in real life, as in social media, as in Second Life, people can have multiple personas and playing around with this possibility cost me one of my close long term friendships (you will know who I mean!). I did not trust things such as facebook and twitter because of my real life experiences, so I did some experimenting to find out how easy it was to set up multiple identities (I had also lectured on Portuguese literature and had published on an author who invented 87 poetic personalities to create his own spooky internal world made up of a ‘drama in people’).

    I experimented with two false avatars and was troubled by what I found to be other people’s reactions to them, how certain people would follow them because they thought they had something in common with them, or criticised them because they didn’t agree with them. My deep knowledge of Jungian psychology helped in this experiment. I therefore wrote a long email warning this friend of how he was at risk from this and how others in education might be unaware of the dangers to students. About two months later, I found my friend was in conversation with a strange avatar who had the same identity icon - I therefore assumed he was playing with multiple identities as a joke which would be typical of him and used another of my own avatars to join in - it ended with him phoning me and accusing me of stealing his identity and causing him real social problems with colleagues. I explained it was not me, that I had already warned him of this possibility and assumed he was messing about so I joined in the prank (he had once pretended to be somebody else when phoning a research student to ask for a date as a prank, so I had good reason to think this). Ever since then our friendship has never been more than superficial, as he obviously never did believe me (even though I discovered who it was and he refused to believe me).

    I’ll stop here (for now) but I think the problem of ‘alter egos’, personas, or whatever you want to call them are much more worrying than you may think and you certainly do not know who may be following you, analysing you, or building up a picture of you unbeknown to yourself. The biggest problem is that most people will just see this as ‘conspiracy theory’!!

  4. Gráinne Says:

    Wow sobering stuff and interesting re you know who, I had no idea! But I do remember him getting cross with some of your tweets, personally I couldn’t see the problem with them…. I am not into Second Life at all, just don’t get it and don’t see what it adds over fb and twitter…. As I said in the post, I do think too much time online can be unhealthy, some people need to stop, think and get a better online/real life balance.

  5. Gráinne Says:

    And the funny thing is Mike that you and I have become better friends because of interacting online! It’s a funny old world…

  6. Mike Harland Says:

    But we did know each other before we met online, so we had some reassurance about who or what we were dealing with and could build a better real picture of each other from there.

    The point here, especially for those who are young or unaware, is that text can easily produce what in literary criticism we call an ‘unreliable narrator’ (whereas voice and video are better at providing more of the instinctive clues that as humans we have learnt to rely on when assessing ‘identity’). Literary fiction has played with the possibility of fooling the reader for centuries. Text on the internet can create these virtual fictions just as easily. We all know the problem of rhetorical devices (humour, sarcasm, irony, etc) where we don’t exactly know what the sender was implying in an email or text message and the medium eventually had to invent smilies and then emoticons.

    But even smilies do not avoid the problem, as I have still been finding out in a Flickr group - you can’t rely on a discussion page to explain to people that part of your character is to analyse, criticise and offer advice - people will still take a comment the wrong way or reply with their own comments that show your advice was not actually welcome. ‘Being yourself’ is therefore still much more difficult an exercise on the internet than it is in real life.

    I’m stuck for time right now, but I’ll try and fill out the idea of loss of a self-identity further with what I see as an even bigger cultural phenomenon resulting from modern media ‘affordances’ and their adverse effects on ’social media’: neo-voyeurism!

  7. Gráinne Says:

    Good points Mike online identity sure is complicated!

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