Life Online

Life Online: You never know what you're going to get.
Life Online: You never know what you’re going to get.

By Chris Sick

It had taken a little more than two months from the first messages exchanged to setting up the first date. We had shared what could, maybe, amount to a few hours of face-to-face conversation, distributed unevenly over a few weeks’ worth of text messages. The communication only had picked back up after a lull in which she hadn’t responded to my last message for a week or two.

In an indeterminate space like the Internet, it’s always tricky trying to read meaning into silence. There’s hundreds of possible reasons someone on a dating site might never respond, both after an ongoing exchange or an initial introduction, and only most of them boil down to “not interested.”

I took a calculated risk that she wasn’t signaling disinterest, and that I wouldn’t look like a creep for sending another message. Her response was perfect for a dating site, a mixture of charming, self-effacing, and unequivocally interested: “Gah! I suck at this website… I’d love to hear more about you. Text me…”

Reading between the lines of flat text, without the benefit of verbal and physical cues, is a constant challenge on the Internet. Research shows that in the online world, a new medium of indicators and cues arises. Online daters carefully examine not just the profiles and messages of potential matches, but scrutinize their own every bit as much, if not more. Information about how frequently someone is online might signal that they’re either desperate or unavailable. A message bearing a late-night timestamp might signal insomnia, add some typos and it might be read as indicating a drinking problem.

In the online dating sphere, now a $2 billion industry, questions of self-presentation are agonized over with an obvious end goal of establishing a romantic relationship, for the night, at least, if not necessarily the long term. Elsewhere on the Internet, people are after more serious pursuits, like threatening women with rape and bomb threats over such burning topics as ethics in video game journalism.

One noted commentator had the audacity to write about issues like racism, body image, and sexism, and in response earned an Internet troll using the name and image of her dead father. When the author, Lindy West, contacted her tormentor directly, she was shocked to get a heartfelt message back. Her personal troll copped to the fact that he was taunting her not because of any disagreement with her comments or positions, but mostly because of his own self-loathing and envy of her apparent happiness.

It’s easy to attribute the disturbing behavior of trolls to the anonymity of the Internet. To point out that people are more inclined to shout epithets at other drivers from the protection of their cars, and likewise to say things on the comments section of their local paper they’d never say to their neighbor. But the indeterminacy of the messages found on drawn-out comment fights on Politico or The Atlantic can require the same level of parsing people spend on online dating messages.

When Gawker exposed famed Reddit moderator “Violentacrez” what was most interesting wasn’t that a man in his late 40s would spend his spare time going on the Internet and posting misogynistic, racist, and sexual images, but that he was proud of himself. Michael Brutsch, the real name behind the so-called “biggest troll on the web,” didn’t hide his activities from his wife or teenaged son, instead each had their own Reddit accounts, with names that made their connection to Brutsch clear.

When journalist Adrian Chen sought to expose Brutsch, he didn’t express remorse or guilt over his activities, he justified his affinity for posting “jailbait” photos – sexualized images of scantily-clad underage girls – by pointing to society’s own fascination with sexualized youth and teens. As distasteful as Brutsch might personally be, it’s worth noting that PornHub tracks search terms, and for as long as it has the most-searched porn term in the U.S. is “teen.”

The messages on the Internet often are fuzzy, soft in a way that makes it difficult to discern their edges and meanings. For online daters looking for love, they read into every piece of information present, looking for some sign of deception or cue that they’re being led on. When arguing about politics on the Internet, people seek out information to confirm their tribal affiliations, finding the most impressive seeming sources of information they can to “prove” to their opponents that climate change is a myth, while reinforcing their own identity among the pack. And sometimes, fairly disgusting Internet trolls inadvertently make strangely salient points about how bizarre it is that our culture sexualizes young girls, by actively justifying their sexualization of young girls.

As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous and part of daily life, discerning the hidden meanings underneath and behind those messages will become a bigger part of our social interactions. How we think of ourselves is more than ever being outsourced to a media platform we access online. Our identities are being intentionally constructed, through “self-summary” entries and selfie posts and check-ins, even as we seem to be unaware that’s what our Facebook is doing for us. The average American now has unprecedented access to a level of narrative tools with which to define themselves while they live and after their deaths. To tell their own story, even as they’re unaware of what it is they might be saying.