It used to be, we had our basic methods of communication. We'd knock on someone's front door and say howdy. Or we'd write someone a letter and slip it in a mailbox and the mailman would knock on someone's front door and say howdy for us. Or we'd pick up the phone, ring a pal, and chat for hours from 2000 miles away.
But we really had little idea of who all was out there. Phones and letters allowed us to stay in touch with friends, but not make friends. We could try personal ads or hang out at singles bars but these were all very inefficient ways of trying to make new acquaintances. What if you lived in California, and, unknown to you, someone who shares your most cherished values, someone you would really like if you met him/her, lived in Montana or Missouri or Tennessee? You would never meet that person, or even become aware of that person's existence.
But then around 1990, this fancy new thing called "the Internet" became popular. It had been around since 1969 in one form or another, and has an interesting history, but it didn't really grow big enough to grab the public's attention until the 1990s. But now it's here, and it presents us with a social networking opportunity unparalleled in human history.
Courage & Cowardice
The Internet presents people with a way to talk to each other anonymously, without divulging real identities. Most people on the Internet know each other by "screen names" and email addresses, and do not even know each other's names, ages, locations, addresses, phone numbers, etc. This anonymity gives people the opportunity to discus sensitive issues or politically or religiously "incorrect" topics with relative freedom from fear. This can give a person the courage to say what's really on his mind, to tell his deepest secrets to his internet penpal, to connect at a depth that face-to-face friends rarely do. One can link hearts, minds, souls with a person 2000 miles away on the Internet far easier than one could locally, face-to-face.
But in addition to fostering courage, the Internet also fosters cowardice. This cowardice can take many forms, including "flaming" (the spouting of angry, hurtful words), "spam" (obnoxious advertisements), cons and rip-offs, and misrepresentation.
Flames & Smoke
On the Internet, the verb "Flame" means to say harsh, angry, hurtful things to people. Why do people loose their tempers and say things to each other on the Internet that they ordinarily wouldn't say to someone face-to-face? Mostly it is because the flamer knows that his or her victim is a safe distance away, and usually doesn't even know the flamer's name, address, or phone number. Also, because it's easier and requires less courage to spout angry words into a computer keyboard than it is to say them to someone's face.
Unfortunately, the recipient of such flames tends to take such words to heart, at their face value, not realizing that such flames often do not represent the true feelings or beliefs of the writer, but only a momentary mood, thoughts that the flamer should have (and, off-line, would have) kept to himself. Truly, I've been both the giver and receiver of such words, myself. Flames are no fun if they come from someone I like, Love, or respect. The pain of that can be extreme. (On the other hand, flames from someone I dislike can be harmless, or even fun.) But the tragic thing is when valuable relationships are damaged or destroyed because one or both parties in a relationship shot their mouths off without thinking.
It's best to always pretend that the person you are talking to is sitting across the room from you, and is likely to punch you in the nose if you shoot your mouth off in a mean, hurtful way. That collapses 2000 miles down to 10 feet, psychologically speaking. This technique can save Internet relationships!
Spam. You'll find out about that your very first day on the Internet. Technically, the term "spam" means to post the same message to three or more Usenet newsgroups simultaneously. But in common usage, "spam" has a much broader meaning. It means to litter the internet with commercial advertisements. Spam appears in your personal email box, in newsgroups, in web-based discussion groups, as banners and pop-ups on free-host home pages, in commercial web sites, and elsewhere on the Internet. It is more proliferate and pervasive then junk snail mail, paper advertising circulars, and TV and radio commercials. Spam is everywhere on the Internet, unfortunately.
What can one do about spam? For the most part, nothing! Literally, nothing is the best policy, because if you reply to spam in any way, even in an attempt to get your email address off a mailing list, you just end up with your address on ten more mailing lists. So don't respond at all, folks. Delete all spam. Block the senders in the filters in your email client. But don't reply to these morons. Replying just encourages them. When they stop getting responses, they will get bored and quit, because they are intellectually bankrupt and have seven-second attention spans. Ignore these mental midgets, and they will go away.
Cons & Rip-offs
Watch out for Internet scams, cons, and rip-offs! Some of the people on the internet want to hurt you! They will do anything to trick you into revealing credit card numbers, PIN numbers, and internet account passwords. Don't reveal these to anyone, especially if they claim to be "official" persons from your ISP or whatever. No actual ISP (Internet Service Provider) or OSP (On-line Service Provider, such as AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve) employee will ever ask you for your password. They already know your password. So whenever anyone asks you for sensitive information of any kind over the Internet, tell them to jump in a lake.
The only valid exception to this I can think of is sending a credit card number through a secure connection to an on-line shopping service. But even here, be very careful. Make sure the service is reputable and the connection secure.
As bad as flames, spam, and scams are, they are not the worst forms of Internet cowardice; the worst is misrepresentation. When a person lies, he or she murders some part of the world. Always tell the truth about yourself to others on the Internet. Only in that way can you stand on high ethical ground and know that you, at least, are not making the existing problems on the Internet worse.
Unfortunately, the anonymity of the Internet gives people an unprecedented ability to misrepresent themselves. A person can present himself as a beautiful 22-year-old Japanese woman who is vice president of a major bank, when in actuality, he is an overweight male Caucasian unemployed alcoholic ex-cab driver. If you are the police or an ISP or a skilled hacker or a good private detective, maybe you can trace the person down to find out who a person really is; but otherwise, you never really know for sure.
So on the Internet, you either have to take people's word on faith, or ask for proofs. And many interneters detest being asked for proofs. So one often is stuck with having to take it on faith that one's friends are who they say they are.
Or, you can take the attitude that you simply do not care, that people are just people, and that personal representation is irrelevant. But I have never been able to force myself to feel that way. I care very much, and I cannot pretend I don't. Every time I find out that yet another friend of mine has been lying about himself or herself, it adds to my overall sadness, and detracts from my ability to trust.
But one good thing is, people who lie on the Internet usually leave tell-tale traces. Their lies cannot stay believable forever. Eventually, they make mistakes, and it becomes obvious that they are fibbing about something.
So be alert: some of the people you talk to on the Internet will be lying to you! Be skeptical at all times. Always keep an open mind as to the possibilities, and remember that anything or everything that anyone says to you may very well be a lie. Don't trust anyone until you have met and interviewed them in person, face-to-face, and scrutinized their birth certificate and driver's license, and run a background and reference check. Any employer would do the same before hiring anyone, so you should do the same before trusting anyone on the Internet. Are there exceptions to this rule? Absolutely not. I'm not saying don't be friendly, or don't Love; I'm just saying, don't trust. That 25-year-old woman you just fell in Love with may actually be a 53-year-old man. Don't pretend that you know for sure that is not the case. You DON'T know.
The simple fact is that people lie about themselves on the Internet. Not a little bit, but a lot. If you have a lot of Internet friends, then some of your most trusted friends are frauds. I guarantee it! That is the painful truth. That is the way it is. Learn to deal with it, or get off the Internet before it breaks your mind.
As much as I hate having to recommend this, never trust anything that anyone on the Internet says to you until you have independent confirmation. Independent confirmation is the only way to make sure that someone on the Internet is telling the truth. There is just to much lying going on out there to blithely believe everything people tell you. I wish the situation was different, but it isn't.
Some people believe that Internet relationships should be kept at the level of casual acquaintanceships only, and that Internet conversations should be limited to chatting about safe, harmless, inconsequential, brainless junk with people you don't know the real names and locations of, people who come and go and disappear like cyber-ghosts, people who may be misrepresenting themselves, people who have no intention of forming any relationship beyond a casual acquaintanceship. But in my journeys through the Internet I have always looked for real relationships with real people. The kind of shallow, meaningless acquaintanceship that seems to be in vogue these days on the internet leaves me feeling cold. I try to get involved with such relationships, but after awhile the phoniness of it becomes appalling. I keep thinking, "Is this all there is? Where is the warmth? Where is the closeness? Where is the Love? Where is the caring? Where is the substantiality?" After a while the sadness of such a relationship builds and builds, and when it becomes too intense, I simply bow out of that relationship. I haven't gotten involved in anything like that in years. I don't have the heart for it. I never will.
That's why I generally like to exchange names, addresses, and phone numbers with my internet penpals, if at all possible, and establish alternate backup methods of communication. The internet is a great way to meet new friends, but I see no reason to limit such friendships to the internet. Unfortunately, some see it otherwise. They apparently do not have the courage to establish new, real friendships with real people. They would prefer to keep all internet relationships anonymous and at the casual acquaintanceship level, and if the relationship starts to go beyond that, they panic and pull the plug, saying that things are getting "out of control". But I will always continue to hunger for something real.
Why do Internet relationships have to be considered less real or less valuable than other relationships? That is what I would like to know. Can't we treat each other like real human beings? Why can't we be at least as polite to each other on the Internet as we are face-to-face? Why can't we care about each other? I'm not interested in the kind of relationships where people treat each other as if they aren't even real. I prefer real communications with real people. Perhaps I'm just an anachronism, a hopeless romantic. Then so be it. But I will continue to be the way I am.