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The news media, along with social and behavioral scientists have recently sent out a multitude of warnings about the many dangers that await us out there in cyberspace. The truth of the matter is that the Web is no more inherently insidious than anything else in the world. It is not some amorphous entity capable of inflicting deleterious outcomes on all who enter. In fact, in and of itself, the Web is fairly innocuous. It has no special power to overtake its users and alter their very existence. Like the old tale that the vampire cannot harm you unless you invite it to cross your threshold, the Internet cannot corrupt without being invited. And, with the exception of children and the highly malleable, it cannot create what does not already exist......
(1) Like alcohol, the Web simply magnifies what is already there: The experts are concerned that the masking and masquerading that goes on online poses a danger for everyone who is a part of the Digital Culture. Before we know it, the experts tell us, we will all don fake identities, become fragmented, and will no longer be sure of just who we are. Wrong. The only people who feel compelled to mask, masquerade, and otherwise misrepresent themselves online are the same people who are enigmatic and disingenuous in "real life"......the Net just gives them one more tool to practice their deceit.
As for the rest of us, getting taken in by these people is a low probability. We know who these folks are in the "real world". They are highly recognizable. Sometimes they go into sales or telemarketing, sometimes they become literary agents, and, just as often they show up as that creepy person at work who would tell you they went bear hunting over the weekend if they thought you would buy it. They are pathological liars and the rest of us clearly know it.
The Internet does not "cause" people to masquerade as something they are not. As for the Digital Culture getting duped by these dishonest folks, well, there are just as many "cues" online to decipher deception as there are in the "real world". The savvy WebHead can recognize many red flags given off by the online behavior of others. Oftentimes the intentions of fellow users is crystal clear, especially over time.
When someone is trying to deceive us online, inconsistencies, the essence that they are trying "too hard" or are just plain unbelievable often comes through loud and clear. Likewise, just like in the "real world", a host of other unsavory tendencies can be readily recognized online. Narcissism (it's all about "meeeee"), those people who have nothing but negativity or nasty things to say about others, and those who feel compelled to undermine others and who think they must blow out the other guy's candles in order for their own to shine can be spotted a cybermile away.
(2) The Web can bring out the best in people: Gregarious, out-going folks in " real life" usually carry these same traits over to their online life. Most are just as fun-loving online if not more so, as they are at a party, at work, or at the local watering-hole. Though admittedly, some are not quite as much fun to be around without a stiff drink.
Shy folks have a "safer" environment online than in the "real world " and can learn to express themselves more freely on the Net (you've never seen anyone stutter on e-mail, have you?) allowing them to gain confidence and communication skills that can eventually spill over into other aspects of their lives.
Helpful people in "real life" are often just as willing to come to someone's assistance online as anywhere else. (These are usually the folks who step forward to help out "newbies" after they have been bashed by people from #1.)
(3) People are judged differently on the web: On the Internet people are judged for their personality, beliefs and online actions, NOT on their physical appearance. This is good. It not only gives ugly folks a leg-up, but causes Beautiful People to have to say something worth listening to in order to get attention.
(4) People open up more: With the non-threatening cloak of anonymity the Internet provides, many people are opening up a whole lot more these days. Online therapists and WebHeads everywhere are now being treated to a host of confessions and disclosures that make Marv Albert's choices in sleepwear look like GurrAnimals.
The World Wide Web has apparently flung open the proverbial closet door and all kinds of sordid stuff has started to fly out. There's apparently a lot more clean consciences these days, but members of the Digital Culture are warned to cover their heads. There's a lot of excess emotional baggage floating around out there in cyberspace. If some of it pops open there's no telling what type of verbal vomiting may come spilling out.
(5) We're connected: Members of the Digital Culture know full well that there is a wealth of important information and life-changing opportunities out there in cyberspace. The Web has opened doors for many of us that otherwise would never have been an option. Research possibilities and networking are just two such opportunities. True, some of what is out there to research offers little more for the user than an opportunity for mental masturbation. It is also true that some of those doing online networking are so socially retarded in the "real world" that they have been rejected by everything from Loser's Anonymous to the Columbia House CD Club.
Not to worry. The possibilities for meaningful connectedness are still endless.
(6) We Learn the Power of Words and to be Better Listeners: With no facial expressions, body language, or physical appearance to distract us, members of the Digital Culture have learned the power of words....both their own, and other's. We know very well how a simple string of words can harm, hurt and offend, or how they can offer humor, help, support and encouragement. Most seasoned members of the online culture have learned to become wordsmiths, carefully crafting the words they use to convey exactly what they mean so as not to be misunderstood.
Many of us have also learned to become far better listeners thanks to the Internet. Not only do we choose our words more carefully but we (especially those who communicate via email as opposed to chat rooms) are forced to wait until the other person finishes before we can speak or respond.
As for those few WebHeads who babble on thoughtlessly online, well, these folks have always babbled aimlessly, the Internet just gives them a bigger vehicle to do so. (There is a solution however. Rumor has it that a little-known virus inserted into a Reply of their e-mail can cause these folks to crash-and-burn.)
(7) We are No Longer "Time-Bound": Members of the Digital Culture have thrown off the shackles of being bound by time. No deadlines, schedules or time limits for us. When we are in cyberspace, time as we know it, ceases to exist. Large, gaping time lapses and time warping has been known to happen online....even when we are working. The Internet is always open and members of the online culture are only too happy to step inside and lose ourselves in the limitless and boundless space....Deepak Chopra would be proud.
(8) Us and Them: Humankind loves it's class-systems and the Digital Culture is no different. Like any other culture an "Us and Them" mentality and framework has begun to solidify, with the "Us" being everyone who is a true member of the Digital Culture and the "Them" being everyone who is not.
(Even within the Digital Culture, a class system has emerged. There are rules to follow. There is protocol to abide by. One's place in the hierarchy is often based on the direction and depth of their personal interests online, their level of sophistication within that circle, and even the amount of hours one spends in cyberspace. There is even a traditional "right of passage" to determine a user's dedication level and whether he/she will "fit in"....... "newbies" are often ridiculed and scorned to see if they have what it takes to "pass" and become full-fledged members.)
While WebHeads cannot always recognize one another in the "real world" by sight, we can identify one another by our language and attitude. (An answer of "yes" to the question, "Are you online?" brings about immediate feelings of kinship among fellow WebHeads.)
The most important aspect of the Us and Them system of the Digital Culture is language. Like any other people who come together and form a new group, the Digital Culture has also developed its own language system. This serves two primary functions: (1) to allow members of the online culture to communicate more effectively with one another, and (2) to keep "outsiders " out.
One outcome of the cyberspace vs. "real world" language barrier is that the "Us" have become a cohesive group and the "Them" are left pointing fingers at all that is evil, dangerous and wrong about Us. The more cohesive the Digital Culture has become, the stronger the attitudes have developed on both sides, and the more intensive the division between Us and Them has become.
Just as well. Whatever separates the true cyberspace lover from the QVC Home-Shopper and Inside Edition viewer has got to be a good thing.
The writer of this article welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org