I've been thinking about some of the new folks I've met on the internet in the last eight months. If they knocked on my door right now, I wouldn't recognize them. It's really a different thing for me to get to know someone without ever seeing them. In my business, all contact is in person and very personal. I am struck with how frequently I make judgements about others based on what I see or hear. And try as I do to not categorize people, it's very difficult to not take note of someone's physical features or the tenor of his voice.
But here on the internet, I'm aware of forming opinions about those whose mailing list messages I receive or whose forum postings I read, or whose websites I visit. I get a real sense of who they are from their writings . . . a feeling for who they are. There is something about the visual anonymity of the internet that seems to free people's writing to more clearly reflect their souls. Or perhaps it is that I am forced to get right to what they're saying without the distraction of their appearance.
It's noteworthy to realize that I often wish I better knew a person I've met in the visual world, but I've yet to wish to see someone I've come to know on the internet. That says a lot to me.
I discover a lot about folks when I visit their websites . . . "Why did he choose that background image?" . . . "Doesn't she know that font color is very difficult to read?" . . . "Does he think those graphics are clever?" . . . "What an interesting collection of links!" . . . "This guy's funny!" . . . "This one's not!" . . . "This person has a real sense of design." . . . "This is a classy site." . . . These observations help me piece together the person on the other side of the html.
And some people write the strangest stuff — anything from what they were wearing on the day they wrote the page to "How to . . ." — you name it! Sometimes I find someone with a great sense of humor or someone whose writing reaches in and grabs ahold of my heart. That makes up for a lot of the other.
I wrote the above thoughts in 1997. Now, six years later, I still find them to be mostly true. One might argue that it is possible to so completely misrepresent one's identity on the internet as to fool folks. Yes, communication online is restricted to words, but language is more than an arrangement of letters. Content, syntax, sentence construction, grammar, spelling, punctuation, wordplay, and humor are all very expressive and they combine to reveal a very individual voice. I think it would be pretty difficult for someone to carry out such an elaborate fabrication over a long period of time without hints of his/her true nature shining through. Sometimes it takes awhile, and it requires thoughtful and careful scrutiny, but my perceptions of online personas have proven to be quite accurate in the long run.
On the other hand, I've recently had the experience of being completely duped by someone I thought I knew intimately and in person. Perhaps, because I could see and hear the normal cues — the facial expressions, mannerisms, vocal inflections, good deeds and bad habits — I wasn't really "listening" with the same acuity I've developed online. In hindsight, the clues were all there had I been paying attention. In that instance, the ability to use all my senses resulted in less information, not more.