2010-05-06 / Sam Bari

The oddity of semi-anonymous social networking in cyberspace

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, 187 recognized social networking websites are active on the Internet. This does not count dating sites. That’s another subject.

Many social sites were probably not included, but most of those are limited to invitation only and require a recommendation from established members in order to join.

Some of the legitimate sites claim membership in the high millions. Facebook, one of the largest, claims 1,000,000,000 members worldwide.

The problem with these sites is that out of one billion members, it is a good possibility that 100,000 of them could be whacko nut jobs. They lurk in the shadows of cyberspace, just waiting for some hapless victim to befriend them. And 100,000 out of one billion is a conservative estimate.

The fact that one billion people have to gather anonymously on the Internet to establish adequate social contact that they can’t seem to acquire in the real world is kind of strange. Is everyone eager to make distant friends? Do they all live in the wild, away from populated areas?

Before anybody gets too excited, I am aware that the bigger websites have taken precautions to assure that members are disclosing the truth about their identity. However, the outward appearance of closet sociopaths can be deceiving.

Most of the social websites began as Internet chat rooms where people with a common interest would gather.

Sites like “military moms,” where women who are married to men in military service gathered to discuss similar problems are common. An antique car website began with a chat room discussion about old cars and grew to be a regularly visited website with several thousand members.

Social sites were originally designed with specific harmless subject matter that does not require much information about the people involved. Military moms might talk to each other about the diffi culties their children have when they frequently change schools, or the hardships resulting from their husbands being overseas without them.

So much can be inadvertently missing from profile information on a social website that would not be acceptable in the real world.

There is no way of knowing if the person you are chatting with has bad breath, or talks with a mouth full of food at dinner. The decision to meet these people in person is often made without allowing for a few surprises.

Mankind is traditionally tribal. We are highly bred herders in the animal world. We have never abandoned our “safety in numbers” mindset. Before the advent of the Internet, our tribal activities have taken place within proximity of the neighborhood and work environments.

There, all of our fundamental instincts were brought into play on a societal level. We had sight, touch, smell, sound and taste all working for us. We knew everybody in our neighborhood, as well as at work and school.

In school, the tribal instinct was broken down into classes, fraternities, clubs and teams. The interplay with others of our kind was always one on one. An abundance of information was available instantly, without the need for reading a carefully worded profile.

When we venture into the world of cyberspace, what do we have as criteria to make us feel safe? We have a character profile. We cannot see the other person in the flesh. For all we know, we could be dealing with an alien from another planet.

The only thing we have is second-hand information. Our instincts are useless on the Internet. It’s very much like judging a writer from reading his work.

I cannot count the number of times I have met people who read my column regularly who said, “You’re nothing like I thought you would be after reading your column.” I have heard everything from, “I thought you were a crabby old curmudgeon who complained about everything” to “I thought you’d be as odd as your columns.”

Both may be true, but the people who said those things were surprised when they met me. On the Internet, any of us can be whoever and whatever we want to be. That’s what makes it dangerous.

Because the screening process and protocol for Internet dating has dramatically improved, the disastrous statistics have steadily decreased. It’s mostly because people are encouraged to meet face to face like normal humans before making any permanent arrangements.

We don’t need the confusion of social networking in cyberspace. We already live in a system we can’t understand.

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