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March 23, 2004

Would I Lie To You?

You know how everyone used to say that the Internet was this big, bad, scary place, where oddballs and losers and social deviants lurked around every corner, just waiting to sink their claws and teeth into some poor unsuspecting innocent who would believe all of their lies and then meet them in a hotel/buy them expensive stuff/sign over their life savings?

Remember when your friends used to tell you it was "weird" to talk to people online, because there was no way of knowing if the people really were who they said they were? "They could be lying about everything, and how would you know?," your friends would scream. "They could be a serial killer!"

Well, as it turns out, a recent study suggests that those dirty rotten liars might not have been dirty rotten liars after all. At least if they're writing in a blog or other public forum.

Now, granted, this is but one study and the survey sample was small (30 college undergraduates, not exactly paragons of virtue from the get-go). But I found the NYTimes.com story fascinating.

To wit:

(T)he students had mishandled the truth in about one-quarter of all face-to-face conversations, and in a whopping 37 percent of phone calls. But when they went into cyberspace, they turned into Boy Scouts: only 1 in 5 instant-messaging chats contained a lie, and barely 14 percent of e-mail messages were dishonest.

... What it is about online life that makes us more truthful? It's simple: We're worried about being busted.

That is so true. I have thought about that on more than one occasion when I've thought a little embellishment might make for a better story. Fortunately for me I understand the reality of posting things on the Internet - they will be online, in their original form, forever. It doesn't matter if I edit my words, or even delete a page entirely; because of services like Google, the original page is still accessible by viewing a "cached" version.

That realization is running through my subconscious whenever I post on this site, post on a newsgroup, talk to people in an IM or chat, etc. Because while everyone has their own interpretation of an event – stick 10 people in a room and make them interact with each other for an hour and you'll get 10 slightly differing recollections of the same basic facts – if there was any second-party witness to what I'm writing about, if I'm not completely truthful I run the risk of getting called on it, publically.

And that just gets messy.

And it's not only e-mail that records our deeds for future scrutiny. Before going on a first date, people Google their partners to see what they can learn.

No way!! Now that's just crazy talk.

Still, it's not only the fear of electronic exposure that drives us to tell the truth. There's something about the Internet that encourages us to spill our guts, often in rather outrageous ways. Psychologists have noticed for years that going online seems to have a catalytic effect on people's personalities. The most quiet and reserved people may become deranged loudmouths when they sit behind the keyboard, staying up until dawn and conducting angry debates on discussion boards with total strangers.

Yup yup. I've always thought that most people wouldn't say HALF the crap they do online if they were speaking directly to someone. You can be meaner online. It's like it's okay in some ways to be a total bastard, especially when you can always fall back on the "it's hard to convey tone when you're just using words."

I hate that excuse. Because NO, it's NOT hard to convey tone online. It just takes a little craft and skill and thought.

Another researcher, an Open University U.K. psychologist named Adam Joinson, conducted an experiment in which his subjects chatted online and off. He found that when people communicated online, they were more likely to offer up personal details about themselves without any prompting.

I believe this, although I'm completely the opposite when it comes to most personal things (my experience having had cancer is the one exception). Other than that, I don't post a lot of personal details or thoughts for complete public consumption, and the details I do share online in IMs or emails are with people who - even if I met them online - have become my good friends.

Although there have been a few times in HT chats where we've all related personally embarrassing stores (like drubnk stories, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend stories, etc.).

Bush himself can't put old statements about W.M.D. behind him partly because so many people are forwarding his old speeches around on e-mail or posting them on Web sites. With its unforgiving machine memory, the Internet might turn out to be the unlikely conscience of the world.

*hugs the Internet*

And I really want one of them there terabyte-sized hard drives.

Posted by Highwaygirl on March 23, 2004 09:10 AM to the category Geek Love

Wow! I don't agree with Heewig for once!

I totally believe that huge misunderstandings and disagreements online can stem from the fact that you're not conversing face-to-face. Your "tone" doesn't just come from the inflection in your voice; it also is conveyed through body language and other subtleties. You don't get that online.

And true, there are other ways of conveying "tone" online, but it's still not as simple as shrugging your shoulders or rolling your eyes to help you convey the emotions attached to your words.

So, yeah, I use that "excuse" all the time. Because it's not an excuse to me.

Posted by: Teem at March 23, 2004 06:29 PM
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