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This page is one of several that we will be creating to introduce the world of internet chat to new users.

Chat Primer: Is this a Game or is it Real?

A first look through the Looking Glass of chat

When you first go into a chat room it is unlike anything you have ever seen before. Once you get past the noise of everyone talking at once to undefined others, and you begin to have a coherent conversation with another person, you will inevitably ask yourself, "Is this a game or is it real?"

There are two parts to this question: (1) Are you real? and (2) Am I real?.

Are You Real?

Lets deal with the easy question first: "Are you real?" ("you" meaning the other person you are chatting to). The simple answer is a definitive "yes" and "no". Believe and disbelieve everything you see and hear.

Why should you Believe people? Because you can be assured that there is a human being behind the text your are seeing on your computer screen. If 10 people tell you to stop verbally abusing someone online, you should listen to that - they are probably right. If 5 people think you should give your marriage another chance, then it is probably worth a try. If a person tells you that your sexual come-on was offensive, then it probably was, and you should probably appologize (if you get the chance). If someone says your angry expressions are "flaming" then you should probably watch yourself and backtrack. If you wouldn't treat your dog that way, then you should probably not be treating your chat room acquaintances that way. These are living, breathing humans who hurt and bleed, just like you. It's easy to forget that, when you are angry or "just having fun", and it is wise to do your best to remember.

Why should you Disbelieve everyone? Because you just never know, when you are online. And because many others see this as just a game, and don't see you as a real person. Many people have no problem with lying, betraying, leading you on toward a passionate but false cyber-relationship, screaming, flaming, threatening, or abusing you in any other way that they would never do to a person in real life. Plenty of people (though not most) have no problem giving out free advice to you which, if followed, could have devastating consequences to your life. One man implored a woman to leave her husband - after a 20 minute chat. Four years later, the woman is still with her husband and children and plans to stay that way. One could conceivably argue whether or not she was wise to have stayed, but you can't argue with the totally insanity of the advice, and other similar crazy ideas you can hear on chat.

So how does one believe and disbelieve at the same time? One point to keep in mind is that most of the people are descent and good-intentioned and even wise, most of the time. In fact, people are wonderful...most of the time. So don't believe any single person, but believe in what lots of people say.... most of the time.... when they are making sense.

That is not to say that the majority of people in a chat room at some time can't get all crazy and tell you to go to hell at the same time. That kind of "mass psychosis" is not rare, but is not the norm. But have patience, and with time you will find that usually, most people are inclined to communicate in a meaningful, positive way.

I will claim that if you approach chat with the right attitude of suspended belief, and a basic confidence in humanity, you will learn and grow from the experience over time. People are basically good and even wonderful at times!

Am I Real?

Now for the hard part, "Am I Real?" This isn't all as easy as it appears.

First the easy part. You can't be fully open about your personal identity to people you meet for the first time. You aren't being threatened with a knife through the computer screen, but you may be cutting your own throat and bleeding to death if you are exchanging full names, phone numbers and other things that can lead to your being identified by that person in the real world. Since you don't know for sure if they are real, you don't know what they will do if they can find you. Of course, with some people there may be a time when it is right to meet in the real world, and only you and perhaps your parents can make that judement. But be assured that the time is not at the first few hours of a meeting. This is not like meeting someone in the real world - you can't see their face and their nonverbal behavior, and you can't evaluate their safety as easily as you can in real life.

Dangerous games

On the other hand, it is dangerous to view chat as a complete fantasy game. The dangerous games of chat take many forms, and here are just a few:

Cyber-rampage: I once saw this first-hand when I was showing a new chat program to my then-14 year old nephew. This is a fine, bright young man who would never harm anyone. He is a commedian, and he likes to keep us all laughing with his irreverant humor. It was an eye opener to me to see this young man with his first chat experience. He was yelling obscenities, insults and other abuse as quick as he could, jumping randomly from one person to the next. He had the whole room of early-teens laughing hysterically. Yet, I knew from past experience how this was being viewed from the other side of the modem. It's a real annoyance and almost all people hate it. It is disruptive to any potentially meaningful conversations others are having, and occassionally a naive new person will be hurt or offended. So just don't do it yourself, and if you see someone else doing it, just "mute" them and ignore them. At some point, we will be wise enough to set up special rooms for "Arguments" and "Abuse" (like in the Monte Python skit) but outside of those rooms, it's not cool.

  • Cyber-Don Juan: This is a game that I've seen more than once, and it's certainly way more common than adults trying to kidnap children. The scenario is that someone builds up a passionate, emotional romance in a chat room over a few days, only to disappear or say "I was just kidding" a few weeks later. It could be viewed as an experiment or an exercise for Don Juan, but it is emotionally devastating for his/her "subject". Don't play this game. In life, you reap what you sow, and if nothing else, your personal integrity and self image will pay the price.
  • Torn between two lovers. This situation is way, way too common, and seems to be pretty dangerous and destructive. You come into chat with a long-term fairly stable relationship (lets say "spouse"). You start out by inviting your spouse to chat too, but your spouse isn't interested or is too busy or is on the road or is computer-phobic. Then you meet him or her online, and the cyber-relationship builds. It is much more passionate and emotional than your current relationship with your real-world partner (of course), but you are a civilized,. caring person and you have no intention of leaving or betraying your real-world partner. Instead, you build this two-world model of reality. You convince yourself that both worlds (cyber and real) have a legitimate place in your life, that they can co-exist, and that you can keep them separate and prevent them from interfering with each other. But over the weeks, things get pretty intense, and one of you has an opportunity to visit the other in the real world, and you go for it! There are loads of stories like this. Not uncommonly, one spouse will leave his/her wife and children and fly to the other side of the world to be with his/her cyber-lover. The outcomes are variable but often devastating for several real world people.

    Our advice: Don't fool yourself! Know what you are getting into and the consequences. If you are commited to your real-world relationship, then don't do anything without involving your spouse/partner. Get your partner online with you to 'share' your chat. If you find yourself "flirting" with someone online, then at a minimum, share your dialogs and feelings with your spouse - the whole thing - within 24 hours of each online experience.

    And make sure that your cyber-friend knows exactly your real life situation and your solid commitment to your partner - he/she is human and potentially vulnerable too.

    Some interesting dialogs have taken place on whether there is such a thing as cheating on a real world spouse or lover by having a cyber-relationship. The consensus among these chatters seemed to be that anything - feelings or facts - that you withhold from your real world partner is equivalent to cheating on your partner, whether or not it involves physical contact. Be warned - it's not just a computer and text.
  • A Crime by Any Other Name Another dangerous flight from reality is when people take on the mistaken belief that they can say things that are illegal in the real world. One reason for this believe is that "it's ok, because nobody believes anything on the internet" and another is that one is completely anonymous and can never be caught. Both these premises are dangerously mistaken. Over the years, the legal system (at least in the United States) has held a consistent position that anything thing that is illegal to do or say in the real world is illegal on the internet. And don't believe that you will not get identified. While internet chat over a dial-up modem is fairly anonymous with normal use, it is not at all anonymous when you do something illegal. In this case, a legal authority can typically get authorization for access to the logs of your internet provider and determine your IP address at any given point in time, and connect that with the internet addresses that may be logged on your chat server. "Anonymizers" can reduce this record to some extent, but computers leave huge trails of breadcrumbs for investigators to trace, and you will never really know whether your trail is clean. Use common sense and basic decency and you will stay out of trouble.

Less Dangerous Fantasies

a/s/l Some people misrepresent themselves with respect to the basic tags of "a/s/l", that is, "Age, sex and location". One kind of comical scenario is when men represent themselves as woman. I don't think this is very common (who knows?). The reason this is funny is that many men have a huge phobia about meeting a woman on chat who would turn out to be a man. They will avoid chat altogether just to avoid the possibly of such an encounter. Much more commonly, kids will represent themselves as older teens or 20 year olds. Also some people past their prime will represent themselves (through avatars or text) as being younger than they really are.

Our advice is to be honest about your age, sex and location (country or large city, not your street name). Some can and will misrepresent these things, but from our point of view, such people primarily hurt themselves. You may want to explore a range of different personalities, that you can't risk trying in the real world. But what good is there in putting yourself out as something you can never be? Part of learning and growing is accepting yourself as you are, and move on from there. Only then can you benefit from your experience after the computer is switched off.

So How Real Am I?

Pretty real. Relax, play and have fun and try stuff. But never forget who you are, and never forget that there are real, living people on the other side - just like your family. Handle yourself and others with care.