Thursday, 14 June 2007

Ceci n'est pas Fiona Blamey

'Well, I can't say it's the most *profound* utterance I've ever read in the Telegraph.'

So said my dad when I showed him my quote in last Saturday's Digital Life section about women's use of online social networks.

I think dad was trying to be encouraging in an odd sort of way, but in another way, he has a point. While part of me is pleased that the Telegraph is dispelling some of the myths about the internet to the good citizens of Middle Britain, another part of me was bemused to read that these myths even still exist.

Surely by now, the fact that 'normal' people socialise on the internet shouldn't be considered shocking, surprising, or even very interesting. Isn't it just part of everyday life?

Like my dad, I can't see anything particularly earth-shattering about the fact that I met my current partner on a chat forum, or that I was comforted by the many messages of support I received from my blog readers when my mum died. Why should I restrict myself to people I meet in the world around me, when there's a whole virtual continent out there full of people whose company I might also enjoy?

And yet a strange notion seems to persist that people you meet online are somehow not quite 'real'. When I was talking to IBM's metaverse evangelists last week, one of the things they were keen to stress about Second Life is that everyone in it is 'a real person', as if this fact might somehow be in doubt.

Others fret about anonymity on the internet leading people to behave differently from how they behave in the physical world. Extreme examples of bad behaviour - such as the death threats made against blogger Kathy Sierra, or the abuse meted out to Guardian columnists on its Comment is Free site - are often held up as evidence that adopting a 'fake' persona on the internet is a bad thing.

And yet, as the Telegraph piece hints, the ability to remain anonymous online can also be a good thing. It can give people a way to speak out when doing so under their own name might be dangerous. It can allow people to discuss highly personal issues without fear of embarrassment or stigma. It can give people who are not confident in themselves the confidence they need to put themselves forward, air their opinions, find new friends.

Above all, adopting a different name on the internet can be a wonderful way of exploring aspects of your personality. My various online personas may have different names and (slightly) different personality traits, but they are all still me - just as I only portray certain aspects of myself in my real-life dealings.

Its rules of engagement might be somewhat different, but the internet is just as real as the real world, with all the good things and the bad things that that entails. Although that perhaps doesn't make for such a good story.

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