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Cyberlove at Cyberia

uk.media, uk.misc, demon.local / 2 March 1995
By Paola Kathuria

Reporting from the Front

Yesterday evening, a group of people crowded into cafe Cyberia on Whitfield St, in London, to listen to speakers, and to later discuss, "Cyberlove - Women & the Internet". The event was jointly organised by Cyberia and INTERNET magazine. The flier states that

the increasing use of the new, electronic media creates new forms for relationships (electronic polyamory, gender swapping, play-gay and on-line sex to name just a few).

I went with two friends, people I had originally met on the net; we have been on the net several years and two of us have had direct experience of romantic net relationships with other people.

As for why I went, I went along intending to heckle. In the end, it proved to be an interesting evening and, although a lot of dubious things were said, some useful comments were made which helps me, at least, to put words to some of the feelings I have had about what goes on here.

Three kinds of net relationships

The first speaker was Eva Pascoe, a psychologist, but in her role of "electronic media activist". I started to take notes of contentious issues and so this report will undoubtedly be biased towards the things I didn't agree with rather than those I did.

Eva identified, I think, these three kinds of relationships on the net: those originating on the net, those in existing relationships (the example was of mother and son) where communication is improved in the electronic medium (because, as we know, people say things in e-mail that they wouldn't otherwise say), but is not improved off-line and finally those in existing relationships where the off-line relationship is improved (giving an example of a married couple).

Cover up

Eva said that visiting the Internet was no different, for women, than visiting Greece. That when she goes to Greece she knows that wearing short skirts, although her choice, will provoke certain attention, that she shouldn't go topless on certain beaches if she doesn't want to be hassled, and so women on the Internet should therefore do the equivalent of wearing long skirts and exercising caution in what they say. This reminded me of the way Muslim women are covered up to not tempt men into misbehaving, making it womens' problem that some men cannot control themselves.

E-mail messages

The average length of e-mail messages (for men, I think) was apparently one and half paragraphs and the figure of 6% women on the net was quoted all night although no one said where this figure came from. I believe that it is closer to 20%. It was also suggested that on-line communication wasn't edited.

Pretend to be anyone

There seemed to be an awful lot of focus on the notion that the medium allows people to "pretend to be anyone they want to be". This was echoed by each speaker.

I don't believe that the occurrence of people who deliberately take on different personae, with different lives and backgrounds, is really that common.

From what I have seen, people who do this are, to any casual observer, obviously acting out some creation (like dear evapor8 and fis) and they will eventually grow bored with it and move on. I would be very surprised, for instance, if anyone in my own hang-out, demon.local, was not what they professed to be. Those that are, are usually very obvious and even some of the obvious creations can turn out to be real (eg, JK).

"It's not serious"

The next comment that I heard and so wrote down was that "people don't understand that it's a play area and not serious" and since I, and many people I know, take the net seriously, perhaps it was the speakers themselves who have been "guilty" of taking on fantasy on-line personae and they have just assumed that everyone else did the same.

The next speaker was Oliver Davidson, a clinical psychologist who is not a net user. He works with people who have relationship or sexual problems and so brought to us his knowledge of what makes relationships work and how they can go wrong.

"It's not real"

He started by saying that there was a whole world going on out there that didn't know or give a toss about Internet [sic], that people were clicking at their keyboards and not relating to anyone.

You have to smile; this is the attitude I got from friends seven years ago when I started meeting people on the net: "it's not real", they'd say, "get out and meet some real people".

Now that the net has become fashionable, I expect that this attitude will die out once people actually have a go (and even when they don't).

Social contracts

Oliver talked about "social contracts" and "communicating boundaries".

The social contract stuff was interesting and I wish I had made more notes, but it is to do with an understanding that people have in a relationship; that they are who they say they are, that the relationship is what it is said to be, that by finding out that this is not the case can be difficult to cope with and that not everyone can handle this break of a social contract. He said that people should be responsible and realise that other people may be hurt.

He said that if you were to bring up a child in an environment with no rules or "boundaries" (social, moral etc, I guess) that they would grow up pretty screwed up, that parenting involved communicating to the child what is acceptable and what the boundaries are of things. He said that people feel safe knowing what the boundaries are and that they become uncomfortable when the boundaries change.

No boundaries

This is all sensible stuff and I didn't disagree with him. But he then went on to say that, because people on the net can pretend to be anything they want to be etc etc, that social contracts are broken and that because there are no boundaries on the net since, he said, it is an anarchy, that some people cannot cope and that they end up believing in something that didn't actually exist. This I don't agree with.

Courage to speak

It was at about this time that I mustered up the courage to speak. It was soon after I spoke that I remembered why I feel more comfortable communicating to hundreds or thousands of people here than to tens of people in one room. The observation also fits in nicely with the idea of pretending to be someone else. There's no denying that I express myself differently in this medium than I do verbally. I am basically a shy person and public speaking terrifies me, but I rarely feel nervous on the net. It therefore seems important to distinguish between seeming to be different, on- and off-line, and deliberately engineering a difference.

It's hard to be insecure on the net and this, I believe, is simply down to the lack of feedback (and not about anonymity as is often bandied about), and so, unless they hear otherwise, and I mean in a big way, people imagine that their audience has laughed at all their jokes, has agreed with their opinion, loves their 15-line sig with their name written out in 8-bit characters that looks like crap on anything else but a PC and ... appreciated their reports.

If someone pipes up with a complaint, they are sometimes lambasted with claims of having no sense of humour, of not having a life, of being "sad". This is because the masses, through their quietness and by not being able to see the expressions on their faces, are perceived as having received everything favourably and because human nature is such that everyone believes that they are right unless they are actively convinced otherwise (with a nod to {R}).

So, I appear to be different in different places. Me in person, me on the phone, me in Usenet (and you'll see a different me who posts to uk.net than the me who posts to rec.arts.erotica), me on IRC and me in e-mail. They're all me, just different parts that come out in different company. (As a sideline, it was interesting to do my home web pages as it was the first time that I brought together, to one place, several of the pieces for people to see a more complete me.) I don't pretend to be something I am not. If anyone asks me what I look like or how old I am, for instance (although this mostly happens on IRC), I tell them. For the most part, people don't ask. What they imagine is then their problem and not mine.

Filling the gaps with wishful thinking

It was at about this time that I mustered up the courage to speak. It

Anyway. What I said was that relationships, heavy relationships, are formed quickly on the net, in a matter of days, but that the intensity of the relationship at this time may be misleading. At this time, a couple have very sparse information about each other but, because people have to have a sense of a complete person, they unconsciously pad out the gaps with, as I called it, wishful thinking.

From this point, subsequent interactions allow you to modify this internal image but, because you start with very little concrete information anyway, not much changes. When a couple might believe they are, say, 90% towards knowing they have found Mr/Ms Right, they could be only, say, 10% of the way there. Sometimes, in spite of the odds, things work out anyway as a fluke, but I'm sure that it doesn't for most.

Getting to what is real

Having left people with this rather negative image of on-line romantic relationships I then managed to speak again to finish off the idea. I said that swopping photos and making a telephone call is a way of progressing along the path towards finding Mr/Ms Right quickly, or to find that you shouldn't have really been on the path with that person at all. Having said that, I believe that, in time, even without pictures and voices, and I mean regular e-mail for a year, you get very close to the "real" them (that is, narrowing the difference between who they are and what you see, based on what you want).

A panel about the net with no net users

Jane Hull (?), who writes on cybersex for Computer Life joined the panel and they took lots of questions from the floor. It turned out that only about 10 of us were net users. I would guess that a lot of the rest were journalists.

They started talking about relationships and about the "real"ness of on-line relationships, but it soon degenerated into a rabble of talking about men's lack of skills in chatting women up on the net, about harassment, censorship, regulation and pornography.

It seemed clear to me that with a panel who'd obviously had very different net experiences to my own, and with a crowd of non-net people, that nothing especially useful came out of the discussion period for me.

(Note that I have distinguished between on- and off-line relationships rather than, as the people were saying last night, fantasy and real relationships.)

In the end, we came away glad we'd gone along, pleased to have found it interesting and wondering about the future events.

Paola