||Between the vast expanses of reality and the unfathomable depths of the imagination lies a hazy grey area called "Cyberspace." While intangible, it influences thoughts and emotions in a way that human history has never known. The invention of transportation put man on the road to seek out new lands and cultures. Telecommunications allows a man to stay stationary and bring the world to his monitor. Interpersonal relationships now span thousands of miles and cross boundaries in a way that precludes many racial, social, and financial prejudices. Voices carry at an equal volume (although, sometimes at a slower baud rate) and ideas are exchanged in a place where the main emphasis has been freedom of expression.
A whole new world
As communication technology speeds forward at a phenomenal pace, the medium opens itself up to more and varied means of self-expression. But behind the myriad of wire, the growing proliferation of domains, and the overwhelming number of JAVA applets, sits human beings creating these tidal surges of bytes. People- fallible, wise, gullible, humorous, meddlesome, creative, and eloquent but mainly "real."
And every time a real person opens up a connection into cyberspace, they have to consciously decide what they want to be and how real they feel in their intangible bit of cyberspace. While a person's online persona can constantly change, there are perimeters that are set as to how emotionally involved he or she becomes involved with fellow net.citizens and how detached they are to the words that scroll across the screen.
As the children's rhyme goes "Sticks and stone can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But, as adults, in cyberspace, we are more likely to take to heart the old adage "The pen is mightier than the sword."
A fine line
For those seriously immersed into cyberspace, the difficulty comes in drawing a line between real life feelings and online relationships. How much of them do you take seriously and how much of the online chatter to you shrug off as just chatter?
The first step is in knowing who to trust. In cyberspace, this is nearly an impossible task unless you have known a person online for quite sometime and, perhaps, have even met them in person. Even then, though, trust is fleeting.
In the anonymous world of cyberspace, the 'truth' is a fleeting spirit that changes form upon the stroke of a key. On millions of keyboards, the keys continue clicking and our perception of others becomes increasingly more complex. As a net.citizen, one has to take care with what one says and what one discerns from the numerous bits of information that flow across the globe. Burdened with this abundance of information, sound judgment is the only weapon against getting bogged down in a mire of misinformation and 'creative truths'.
This is a simple matter when confronted with basic, simple facts. Complications arise when the information confronted pertains to another person. Interpersonal relations online are riddles. Without face-to-face interaction, reading a person becomes an exercise in deductive reasoning, with the only clues being the words meted out by the conservative hand of the riddle being deciphered.
Conservatism, in the case of online behavior, is developed out of either a need for security or a need for escape. Both are justifiable reasons to not reveal the whole truth. Security is common sense. Just as a person does not readily give out their home address to a stranger in the street, most are reluctant to dole out personal information online. Paranoia of online stalkers and con artists is not unsubstantiated. Just as technology has blessed man with new weapons in the battle against crime, crime has new ways to victimize man.
Some people reveal little or nothing about themselves online and instead create an online persona to do their bidding. This is nothing more than a simple escape from who we are and what we do during our working hours. Escapists consider the online world a chance to step outside themselves and relate to others in a way that they do not feel comfortably doing in real life. This may sound like a stereotypical net.sex fiend, but there are many other ways of escape on the 'net besides sex.
The great escape
Some people have more of a voice online and are more comfortable expressing themselves in words across wires than face-to-face. For them, cyberspace is the perfect home. These actors play their part upon the screen and then return to their lives after they log off. Cyberspace is their role-playing world and when the game ends, they return home.
Escapism can go to far beyond the realm of cyberspace, though. There can come a point when a person becomes so attached to their online persona that they can not break free of the role in real life. The acting is usually not carried out with the person's real life friends and family. Instead, they form real life bonds with their online acquaintances using this contrived character as a front. This behavior may be defined as deception. And in this connected world, this simple act of deceit can cross continents and span from minor indiscretions to felony.
The worst lies lead unsuspecting victims into the hands of true felons. Smaller, more intimate bits of misinformation can also lead to larger unforeseen predicaments. While not crimes against the people, these acts can emotionally mar individuals who were only looking for entertainment. The lies take on a life of their own and the online actor fails to take into account just how human the person on the other end of the modem is. The role becomes instinctual and continues to feed on simple emotions until the truth is either revealed or the relationship is put to an end. Usually, the only surviving remnant is a rejuvenated distrust in cyber-relationships.
Escapism is a double edge weapon. As effortlessly as it will injure the gullible, it can also harm the person fleeing from reality. Misrepresentation over the Internet, just as with over the telephone, is a criminal act.
As you look hesitantly at your screen and begin to pick over small peculiarities in the behavior of your online "friends" remember- most people do not create complete new identities for themselves. People know only how to be themselves and, thus, that is was they eventually are. With the majority of people online it is easy to decipher what it real and what is a net-persona. Though, they may put up a good front at first, the facade usually breaks down and a real personality, either good or bad, begins to shine through those words on the screen.
It can safely be said that most people on the 'net do not tell the 'whole' truth about themselves online. Most people rarely tell the whole truth about themselves in reality. For the whole truth can only be interpreted with the help of varying viewpoints and those views are subject to interpretation. And when your only means of communication is a keyboard, the subjectivity rises.
The lack of vital emotional nuances that are only distiguishible in face-to-face communications can change a simple joke into spiteful words. Misinterpreted bytes can take empty words lighting up a dark room on a sleepless night and turn them into the love of a lifetime. One person's words, said with a casual detachment, can ultimately fuel a fire feeding the heart of one seeking something very real. Where egos and emotions collide, a "game" suddenly becomes a very real experience of opposing values and opinions creating rifts that only time can thoroughly iron out. Suddenly, cyberspace is a little too real and a simple past-time distraction becomes a very emotional and trying situation.
Watch your fingers.
Balance is the key to dealing with online relationships. Balance between trust and suspicion. Be aware of how much information your reveal and indiscrepencies in what online acquaintances tell you about themselves. Just as you never jump into a pond without putting a toe in the water, never willingly hand out information about yourself online without being very sure who you are dealing with on the other end of the line. Intuition can be your best friend at these times.
If you do fall victim to online fraud, do not hesitate to email the perpetrators internet service provider. Most internet providers are very willing to hear out any problems that their subscribers may be giving other net-citizens. They may have information of previous discrepancies by the offender and, in the case of criminal misconduct, are usually more than willing to suspend an account. Contacting the administrators of the site you connect to such as the webmasters, IRC cops, sysops, etc., is also a wise move. Usually there are email addresses and procedures for filing complaints at most sites on the Internet.
Balance also holds true for your involvement with others. It is wise not to get involved to the point where online life encroaches upon real life unless you are honest and up front with yourself and the person you are involved with. Always make sure they know your intentions and pay very close attention to their's. If you feel you are getting too involved, just log off. It is that simple.
Another more far reaching problem in net relations, beyond the rare criminal act or the out-of-hand characterizations, is not letting go of what is scrolling across the monitor long enough to deal with everything else outside of the computer. A person can get so engrossed in online life that the strain can effect his or her real life. They begin to feel that their presence online is a necessity. Worries concerning what was typed into a keyboard a thousand miles away, will distract someone from the things they really need to be concerned with and soon their work, relationships, and health can suffer. This may also be seen as an extreme example but the tiniest amount of stress can upset a balanced being. And the effects may also be minute- a sleepless night here and there or an outburst of misplaced hostility.
So, do we lay down our keyboards and return to the primordial slime that we came from? Take up to beating sticks against trees? Confine ourselves to life in a technological vacuum to avoid the hazards of online life?
On the contrary, relish the advancements that the human race has made. Take pleasure that you, as a net.citizen, have a chance to actively participate in the land of cyberspace. Just keep a balance between the your immediate surroundings and the wide world of the Internet. While the 'net holds infinite possibilities, so does everything outside your front door. There comes a time when you need a lung full of fresh air to reassure yourself that the entire world isn't streaming along at 28,800 bytes per minute.
All the amusements on the Internet are there to entertain, inform, and provoke thought. It is a world-wide forum for the human race to participate and we stand on the edges of it, each day searching out new ways to put this technology to use. And each day, maybe, we can use it to learn a little bit more about the world and a bit about ourselves, too. Computer technology evolved to help, not hinder. And in the end, the only people who have a right to get ulcers because of it are technical support specialists.