Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Electronic Curtain

My son Stewart, who's studying acting at DePaul in Chicago, is currently rehearsing his role in a play in which he portrays a young man dealing with the consequences of having assumed a fake identity while interacting with others on the internet. It's an interesting concept, and a timely project, considering how we all become different people when interacting with others on line. The population that uses computers has become used to the notion that this form of communication will be of no consequence to them.

This phenomenon hit home yesterday after my friend Mike Anderson included an entry on his stlmedia.net website about my blog commentary on Howard Stern's satellite debut. Mike's site, much more frequented than this blog, drove greater numbers of people here than usually visit. He included a portion of my commentary on his site, which apparently ruffled some Stern fans. As a result I have had to endure personal insults from anonymous writers posting in response to my opinion. I expect others to have ideas that vary from mine. But why do people, under cover of anonymity, resort to attempts to defame or belittle others? What does this kind of internet behavior say about our current state of affairs, and the health of our society? Anything?

Not too many years ago, most personal interaction was either done face-to-face, by phone, or by mail. In those forms of communication, most people had to identify themselves in order to be taken seriously. Obviously, face-to-face communication is the most honest form. If you have something to say to a person, you either have the guts to say it to their face, or you don't. You're willing to accept the consequences of your words.

On the phone, or in a letter, you have the benefit of the distance between yourself and the recipient to communicate your message without fear of that person's physical presence or possible reaction. In this secondary form of communication the writer, or speaker, must still identify himself in order to expect a serious response. Anonymous letters and phonecalls may get your attention, but have come to be generally accepted as somewhat cowardly, and more of a nuisance than anything. It's exactly why we have effectively banned telephone solicitation, instituted caller ID, and why most junk mail ends up in the trash.

Blogs, message boards, chat rooms, and other places where people interact anonymously on the internet, seemingly have set up a way to semi-legitimately interact with others without fear. However, it seems to me, we all should have a greater awareness that much of what is said should be taken with a grain of salt. Anyone, anywhere can say almost anything without fear of physical confrontation, ridicule, or prosecution. (Of course, threats to national security and the like have come back to bite some writers in the rear if they screw up and go that far.) Therefore, we all must realize that little of what is written by "Mr. or Ms. Anonymous" carries any significance. It's just another moment extracted from an episode of Jerry Springer.

I don't hold this blog to be an important place to visit. I don't expect anything I write to change the world. It's simply a place for me to express an opinion, something to which everyone is entitled. But, at least my name is on it. I put myself out there for examination and ridicule. I don't take kindly to personal attacks as a response to what I say, but I won't be concerened about "behind-the-mask" opinions either. Most people in the St. Louis area know how to reach me if they really want to. Mr. or Ms. Anonymous provide no address, phone number or e-mail address. So their views carry no weight.

By the way, in Stewart's play, the lead character gets himself entangled in a number of messy situations when he actually tries to assume his internet persona in real life. A stage play is an understandable false reality. The internet also provides a false reality, and a place for many people to be, because of the "electronic curtain", more than they really are.

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