A blog about Cyberculture and ICTs.

The Great Pretender

Posted by candacewhitehead on April 28, 2008

Some time after my father fell ill, my mother began spending a lot of time on Skype. It was understandable – after almost five months of fourteen hour days at the hospital, she could relax when my father was brought home. She finally grew bored, and became a Skype addict, much to my brother’s and my dismay.


On Skype she met someone we’ll call Bob. They initially began talking every so often, as they had mutual friends back in Botswana. Then they started talking a little more. And then they were still chatting at four in the morning. She’s now in Pretoria with him. And according to Facebook, she is “in a relationship”.


As I said in my last post, the Internet brings with it a whole new set of rules, but a lot of the same problems. Cyber-romance is definitely a whole new playing field.


In 1998, Andrea Baker wrote an article called “Cyberspace couples finding romance online then meeting for the first time in real life”. Her research examines eighteen couples who met online.


Most online relationships seem to move from a public online space (open chatroom, forum or MUD) to a private space – personal messaging and e-mails, which mirrors most real-life relationships. You spot someone at a bar, shove your way through forty or fifty people, and manage to squeeze in next to the person you’d been eyeing. After a while, you might give them your number, or skip the whole polite-courtship approach and disappear back to their place (hey, it happens).


But can you accurately represent yourself over the Internet? Back in Baker’s day (and let’s face it, 1998 is ancient history when it comes to cyberculture) much of the focus was placed on writing, although now visual and vocal stimulation is as important in cyber-relationships as it is in real-life ones. Webcams and microphones are easy enough for anyone to install, and the same rules start cropping up again. Before signing on you check your hair and make-up, make sure your underwear isn’t showing thorough your shirt – that sort of thing. .


This calls up an interesting point – if you do fall in love over the net, it’s clearly because of the person’s personality, right? People forget is that e-mail and chat has the potential to be heavily composed and revised – my mother would fret for hours over sending an e-mail. Even chat gives you those few extra seconds to think about whether or not what you’re saying is going to make you sound stupid. And what happens in real life when you actually have to have a real-time discussion?


Baker only briefly discusses this in her article, and not very well. There can be either great satisfaction or great disappoint when meeting for the first time – the guy who can make you laugh until you cry over Skype suddenly makes you cry from boredom and contemplate drowning yourself in your strawberry daiquiri.


A Pew study on Online Dating revealed concern on the safety of an individual meeting their online hottie (or nottie) for the first time, and says that people really should scrutinise their online partners as carefully as their offline ones for signs of deception.


Despite the potential for disaster, most people seem to have had a good experience with online dating. As much as Bob freaks me out, my mother seems happy. They’ve now (apparently) been dating for five months – after meeting in real life for the first time in December.


And I must admit, this online thing might just take the hassle out of dating – I could lounge around at home in my tracksuit while telling the guy I’m wearing stiletto boots and designer jeans.


Because let’s face it – none of us mind a little misrepresentation. Especially seeing as I can barely afford Mr Price jeans.


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Reinventing the wheel to run myself over

Posted by candacewhitehead on April 24, 2008

I was browsing the net between classes, and came across this website. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, unfortunately (though I do have it bookmarked on delicious) but there was one phrase that stuck with me.

Silver states that a group of writers, investors and politicans claimed that cyberspace was “a new frontier of civilization, a digital domain that could and would bring down big business, foster democratic participation, and end economic and social inequities”.

Now this sounds very much what the Pilgrims said when landing in America in 1620, when Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe in 1980, and what the African National Congress reckoned was a given when they took over in 1994 in South Africa.

My point is that this idea is not a new one. When mankind discovers another land to inhabit, be it physical or digital, there is the hope that this time, this place will be the Utopia we’ve been searching for.

So far, this idealised notion hasn’t been realised. While cyberspace and cyberculture comes with a whole new set of rules, the same problems that society faces arise, albeit in new ways.

Julian Dibbell, a journalist, wrote an article called “A rape in cyberspace: how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society” . In it, he describes the case of one Dr Bungle, a LambdaMOO user who, through the use of voodoo doll – a program which allows one user to control the actions of another – forced certain LambdaMOO users to rape or violently attack other users, or even to violate themselves.

We could argue for hours whether or not this actually is rape or assault. That is not my point. The point is that as soon as a new society came into existence, old society’s problems flowed straight into it.

Instead of a Utopian society, cyberspace provides greater anonymity for people to play out their fantasies and desires. As I mentioned in my first post, the advent of the internet allowed people to operate under aliases, and to experiment with things they normally would never have.

While the Internet has allowed greater freedom as a society, it is clear that with this come greater threats – those problems of society which are heightened by the freedom that the Internet allows us.

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You can’t always get what you want

Posted by candacewhitehead on April 14, 2008

I learnt a valuable lesson yesterday. Make sure everything is saved in at least two different places. My dear laptop crashed – and took everything with it. Including my blog draft. I’m going to have to wing it, so bear with me.

I would love to give you a first-hand account of my Second Life (SL) experience, but alas. After two attempts at getting it up and running, I gave up. At first I tried to download it onto a computer I knew was better than my little Fujitsu. Installation and registration was fine. And then it came to choosing a name.

I must have tried about twenty names for my female character, and all of the cool ones were taken. For those of you who don’t know how SL works, you get to live your “second life” online – choosing a name for yourself, and a new image (an avatar). You have the freedom to do whatever you like – and you can even charge “Linden dollars” to your very real credit card in order to buy things. 

At the end of March, over 13 million people were registered residents of SL – and each has to have their own individual name. You can type in your first name of choice, and then have to select a surname from a prepared list. And some of these names are pretty weird.

So after beating my head against the desk for about half an hour, I managed to find a relatively cool, unisex name. Trouble is – 13 million other people want to have a relatively cool name too. So screw having a normal first name – if you want to have that, you’re most likely going to have to pick a surname that would have seen you beating to a pulp at breaktime in primary school. Sorry folks, thanks for playing.

Once I’d sorted out the name dilemma, it was time to choose where I wanted to land. On that first island, they said I could meet and interact with people, walk around, even fly if I wanted to. Fantastic, I thought! One of my major aspirations in life, after watching X-Men in my childhood, was to be able to fly like Rogue could in the cartoons. Fortunately for Rogue, she didn’t get an error message saying that they couldn’t pick up her network connection.

So I crawled under the desk to check the network cable, disabled the firewall and the antivirus, chickened out and re-enabled the antivirus. And so ended part one.

Then I tried to get it on my laptop – and SL sniggered in its sleeve at my puny machine. See, SL wasn’t designed for people with computers like mine.  If you don’t have at least the recommended (recommended, not minimum) graphics card, SL jerks and shakes until you quit out of pure nausea.

But despite the admin issues, SL is hugely popular. A number of universities have a SL presence, where you can take classes. The Maldives were the first to open an embassy in SL on “Democracy Island”, and were swiftly followed by Sweden and Estonia . 20th Century Fox premiered X-Men: The Last Stand on SL. Reuters has a news bureau. Sky News has a virtual newsroom. Mazda  and Toyota offer virtual replicas of their cars. It’s bizarre, I tell you.

I think it’s the escapism. I think it’s the way you can make up for your past mistakes, and be able to turn over a new leaf and go “this time, I know what to do”. I think that now, but I don’t know. This is only the beginning of my exploration into SL – setting the stage for what is to come.  One virtual step at a time.

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Any Other Name

Posted by candacewhitehead on April 6, 2008

For some time I have been concerned with how people construct their identities on the web under forum nicknames and in chat rooms.


When I was 14, still socially awkward and slightly chubby, I delighted in logging on to chat rooms and chatting to strangers. I could be anyone I wanted to be – a tall, beautiful model, or a determined (still beautiful) university student doing medicine. I could abandon my shy, awkward self and hide behind the handle I had chosen.


While I grew out of this need to be somebody else on the net, I have a very close friend (let’s call him Tomas) who simply cannot. When I read his forum posts or his blog entries, I have no idea who he is. On forums, Tomas becomes arrogant, opinionated and aggressive. Over MSN (and away from face-to-face interaction) he becomes much more confident and more eloquent, hiding behind his heavily-Photoshopped emo-boy photographs. And although I’ve known him for years, I struggle to understand why he behaves like this online.


While I was doing readings on social media and networking, I came across a book by Marshall and Burnett, called Web Theory. In a chapter called “Webs of Identity”, they discussed exactly my concerns on the construction of people’s virtual personas.


One of the very postmodern claims they put forward is that the Internet provides people the opportunity to abandon the confines of the real self they have created, and assume another persona online. People can hide behind a mask of anonymity, and lead two different lives if they wish to.


This leads me to my second concern. If the web opens up an opportunity for you to become someone you’re not, does this not have an impact of the quality of your offline life? Tomas used to spend hours and hours on the internet – either chatting to people over MSN (that he never saw IRL) or posting on forums. He loved his confident online self, which eventually led to him becoming more confident online.


Now the academic jury is still out on whether or not the Internet has positive or negative effects on the user. It has been suggested that people send less time on their real-life relationships if they spend more time on the internet, and this is possibly quite true. If you hide behind your computer for 19 hours a day, your existing friendships will probably take a knock. However, people seem to overlook the fact that fantastic friendships are made online too.


My mother is addicted to Skype. While my father was ill, she would escape to her room and chat to her online friends. When he died, they were there to comfort her more than her so-called real friends, whose idea of consoling her was bringing crappy lasagne and a 12-page handbook on dealing with grief. She is now dating one of these people (or at least, that’s what her Facebook relationship status says).


But my point is that we cannot simply make a blanket judgement saying “Spending time chatting to people on the net is bad”. Instead, we need to look at how your Internet usage has changed your life – is it for the better, or for the worse? Can you carry those changes over to your real life? And what about how you interact with people, and how they interact with you? As Marshall and Burnett suggest, it is the quality of the interaction that is important, not the time you spend online.


Tune in next week for: My SecondLife experience, and why it’s so damn hard to choose a name that doesn’t make you sound like an exotic fruit basket.

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