Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ya Think Ya Know Somebody

Bill Maher talked about the demographic divide in society's reaction to the Te'o story. Only people under 30, he said, would find it believable to have a "girlfriend" who you've never met in person.

I hit 30 seven years ago, but I was still in my early 20s in the late 90s, when suddenly the world became a smaller place thanks to online chat rooms and the Internet in general. And I made friends with people I never saw. Any of whom could have been someone they weren't.

I got letters! Letters in the mail from people far away saying how cool it would be to meet in person one day. I never came close to taking it that far, but there were plenty of people who were way lonelier than I was who were willing to take online relationships to the next level, even without a face-to-face. Which is exactly what they probably wanted: a person to talk to who was in their same boat, who understood what it was like to not get any attention from the opposite sex in the real world, but who couldn't judge them on their looks. It's like a permanent "date with the blind"--you can let your house go, you can let yourself go, etc.

Some of the people I met online back then told me dramatic tales of loves found and lost, entirely online.

Even a few years ago, we in the Red Sox blogging community were all duped by a supposed fellow blogger named "Kaylee." She was a teenage girl who loved the Sox and was dying of some terrible disease. I've always been a huge skeptic when it comes to what I hear on the Internet, and I did have some doubts about Kaylee, but we pretty much all fell for it. There were other non-baseball bloggers who took their relationship with her further, sending her get-well packages in the mail and basically worrying their asses off for this vulnerable little girl. (Here's the point where I feel like the mom in Mrs. Doubtfire: wait a minute, why are we reminiscing about her like she's real?!)

Turns out Kaylee was a fraud. She wasn't dying. She may not have been a little girl at all. But if you'd asked me at the time if I knew any cancer patients, I would have brought up Kaylee as if she was someone I actually knew.

So I don't know if Te'o is lying or not. But I absolutely understand how a person could be fooled like this. And like he said in a recent interview--once you're in too deep, of course you're going to make it seem more "normal" to your friends and family by telling a few white lies about the times you spent together. After all, you wouldn't want people to think you're dating someone who isn't even real. Little do they know you're only hoping she's real yourself.

But I couldn't believe it when one of Maher's guests was actually yelling "he was lying," almost laughing at anyone who would think the guy was duped. She was a little older and obviously can't comprehend something that's probably pretty prevalent among people who grew up online. But that window is closing as the Web becomes more transparent--the teens of right now don't think of the Internet (if they even realize it exists beyond apps) as anything but a way to keep track of their real-life friends' every movement. Which is what we used to call stalking.

(I should also point out that meeting people far away has been going on since way before the Internet--I remember in high school just calling one 800 number after another, talking to people around the world just for the hell of it. And CB radios were huge in the 70s. But the Internet really opened it all up to everybody.)


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Location: Rhode Island, United States