The other side of the screen

I’ve been thinking, this morning, about a post I just read from Scott McLeod, called “Can you ever really know that edublogger beside you?” He makes the excellent point that while we can get to know someone online, we don’t know all of them – or their actions.

I’ve heard this conversation go round hundreds of times in the fifteen years I’ve been active in conversations online – first on Usenet and email lists and my college forum system, later on Yahoo lists, on web fora, on LiveJournal, on MUCKs and MUSHes and conversations about MMORPGs. And they’ve all got a seed of truth.

But this particular argument is also missing something.

We all talk about our lives differently in different spaces. At work, we focus on some things, and gloss over others. With friends, we’ll pick different topics. At a gathering of fellow fans – like the one I’m at this weekend – the topics are again, different.

It’s certainly something that can be abused – people can lie, leave things out, or even lie to themselves. But far more often, it’s simply that we’re seeing a piece of what’s going on, not the full picture. As long as we remember that – and as long as we’re aware of how what we put out there shows a slice of ourselves and our actions – we should be just fine.

So, here’s my guidelines for myself, when it comes to online interaction:

1) I make decisions about trust in the realms I have data for.

Online, there are certain things someone might demonstrate. They might show me they’re articulate (in writing), that they think about and respond to criticism or questions in a productive way, that they have a knack for pulling together different pieces of information in a fascinating way.  I may take their suggestion of another blogger to read, or a particular approach to a problem they’ve got a lot of described experience with seriously.

For everything else – all the things I don’t see – there’s a neutral zone. I don’t trust it, but I don’t distrust it, either. I treat it the same way I do a piece of information in Wikipedia: possibly useful, but if I’m going to rely on it for anything other than amusement or transient conversation, I should probably check it out more first.

2) I have realistic expectations.

I’m generally very willing (time and energy allowing) to meet people in person I first got to know online (and I’ve had some amazing friendships and interactions come out of it.) But I’m also realistic: I don’t expect that a meeting for dinner means we’re going to be Best Friends Forever. Mostly, I expect we’ll have an interesting conversation over a nice meal, and both go away with new things to think about.

I expect that there are things that might surprise me. I make sure I can take care of my own basic well-being without relying on them. And I usually come prepared with some stuff I’m pretty sure we’ll mutually enjoy. Most importantly, I assume that we’ll have a pleasant time, but that it probably won’t be one of the earth-shatteringly amazing days of my existence. (It might be, but assuming it will be just leads to disappointment!)

3) Sharing is likely to be unequal.

Online, it’s very easy for the information sharing to be quite uneven. Imagine a prolific blogger: over the course of six months, they might share a fair bit of information about themselves in whatever they’re talking about. Their reader may come to feel they know a fair bit about the blogger.

And yet, even if those readers reply, the amount *they* share may be far less in quantity than the blogger shares. Or it may be in totally different areas of interest. This isn’t bad or wrong – but it does mean that both parties should be aware of what they do and don’t know about each other, and plan accordingly.

4) People can’t see things about me that seem obvious from inside my own head.

I pay attention, when talking to people online, and especially if a meeting is coming up, to what I tend not to talk about.

Here’s a rather odd one: I’m a librarian, and I’m a voracious reader, but I have a long history of not talking about all of what I read – a side effect of having gotten very self-conscious of how fast and how varied my reading was back in elementary school. I’ve been working up to doing better with that (hence the GoodReads widget in my sidebar here), but even that isn’t everything. (For example, I don’t plan to list books I read to deepen my religious understanding there, unless they’re also of wide general interest.)

And so, I also pay some attention to what people don’t say in their own comments, and whether that’s relevant to the ways I know them. If someone keeps a very focused blog, that’s one thing – but if someone wanders over a range of topics, but persistently leaves some out, it’s sometimes worth a little attention if I’m going to meet them face to face.

Being aware of these things means that when they come up face-to-face – as they often do, because some conversations can be much more comfortable with a few people in person than with lots of people in online public space – I can structure what I say better. And I can remember to ask them questions when it’s relevant, about the stuff they don’t talk much about.

In conclusion:

These four guidelines have meant that almost all of my face-to-face meetings with people I know via online settings have been good fun, interesting, and overall enjoyable. I’ve had a handful where we didn’t click (but nothing worse than that), and hundreds, now, of occasions where we became closer, had more to talk about, or deeply enjoyed each other’s company.

(Right now, I am sitting on a hotel couch with a friend I met online. Yesterday, I picked her up from the airport, and we have had lunch with others, and an outing, and coffee this morning, and we are currently sitting on a couch with our computers in hand waiting for more People From The Internet to show up.)

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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