Cyberspace chatting is like a party where everyone's had a few glasses of wine. INHIBITIONS are lowered and people to say things they might not have said otherwise. Why is this?
YOU CAN BE ANYONE
One reason is the relative ANONYMITY of cyberspace. In a telephone conversation the other person usually knows who you are. In online chat the other person has your nickname and can obtain the name of your Internet service provider, but they don't really have much else. The result of this anonymity is double edged.
A WAY TO OPEN UP
On the plus side people will talk about things they would be too SHY to discuss face to face or even on the phone. If they like you they will probably tell you. If they don't like you, they will also leave you in no doubt! In this respect, the Net has been a very LIBERATING experience for millions of shy people, who become bolder and more extroverted than they are able to be offline.
On the downside you are quite likely to find people much more BLUNT than they would be offline. People also are often "creative" with the truth in cyberspace. An old person can pretend to be young, a teenager can pretend to be an adult, etc. Cyberspace allows them to "be" who they want to be -- so don't BELIEVE everything you see on your screen.
CHOOSING A CHAT
Think about the online name you have chosen as your "USERNAME" or "nick". Many chatters choose their user name or "nick" to reflect their personality. That means you will be judged on your user name. If you want to "play" then fair enough, but make sure you understand the power of your user name.
If you are female, then your user name doesn't even have to be sexually suggestive to get you attention. Girls and women are still a minority on the Net, so any FEMALE user names will get a lot of attention. Some women who are fed up with the harassment side of things, log on with very neutral names. Some even go further and choose a male name in order to be left alone! Guys know this too -- some of them even use female usernames so that they can be the center of all the attention!
Think about how you set up any info about yourself that STRANGERS can obtain ("Personal Profile", "Whois" info or "Set-Up" info). You don't have to put your real name, or your real age or where you live. You can keep it as VAGUE or as inventive as you like. When two people meet in Chat they often do a "whois" check on the other person or read each other's profile to see what kind of person they are talking with. Just remember you don't have to give any personal information out. Do you really want millions of strangers to have your home address?
LEARNING THE ROPES
If you are new to live chat, then be an OBSERVER for a while. In live areas just read other people's conversations until you are comfortable with the method of communication. One way to get harassed is to continually violate "NETIQUETTE" (by not following the rules and style of the area you are in). Listen and learn about it before you jump in. Notice that writing in upper case letters (used to emphasize a word) is often seen as SHOUTING in a chat, and usually makes other people angry.
For a brand new user who is nervous, we recommend the following: just visit rooms and read the conversations. For your first time, you don't have to say anything. Just WATCH how other users are doing it. Your next step will be to type "Hi everyone :)" when you enter a room. That is just being polite. But don't speak unless you feel like you are ready!
A MEASURE OF COURTESY
The other and related reason why people are often more direct in online chat is that they are protected by the electronic distance from the immediate CONSEQUENCES of their actions. A person can type words to you that if they said them in person might provoke you to slap! Face to face, people are careful how they talk to strangers because they don't know what OFFENDS them. So usually when two strangers meet there is a period of "feeling out", where both parties are very respectful and cautious, as they establish how they each like to be spoken to. In online chat this element is often missing.
The wise approach to avoid offending people and making enemies fast is to treat everyone ONLINE exactly the same as you would OFFLINE. Try to treat them as if you were chatting face to face with them. Because in fact there are consequences of being rude and offending people online, as you will see in the later section on flamewars, abuse and harassment. There are electronic versions of a slap in the face, which can be just as upsetting. Remember, online you will not judged by your physical appearance or the color of your skin. You will be judged solely by what you TYPE onto the screen. So think carefully before hitting those keys!
Empathy means the ability to FEEL for other people's emotions when you are chatting with them. Cyberspace is not naturally a "warm" environment. It is an emotionless electronic communication system. All the warmth and emotion that is created online has to be created by human beings working hard sitting at their keyboards. In such a soulless environment it is easy to forget that at the other end of the terminal is another HUMAN being with all the same range of emotions as you have.
Cyberspace is not "just a game". And live chatting is often a serious affair, where people are struggling to COMMUNICATE through discussion of complex or emotionally challenging topics. Imagine joining a Christian chat area where people are discussing issues of morality, or a women only chat area where women are discussing sexual harassment: if you barge in and shoot your mouth off as if it's just a game, you will be hurting a lot of people's feelings. Try to understand that your words can HURT others online, so think carefully before you type. It's not just a case of needing to engage your brain before you use your fingers on the keyboard -- you need to engage your EMOTIONS as well.
When you only have the words to read and can't hear the tone of voice, it can be difficult to express a subtle emotion. Learn how to use symbols ("EMOTICONS"), to show how you are saying things. Read the smileys sideways -- they make a face:
Sometimes you will hear things and think "If that person said that to me face to face, there would be a fight!" Huge arguments (called "FLAME wars") are very common in chat rooms, because everyone seems to lose their temper much faster in live chat than offline. Behave the same online as you do offline, and try to avoid arguments. Remember, online you never know who it is you are picking a fight with.
TIME MANAGEMENT AND ADDICTION
It is a fact that you can become addicted to the Internet -- spending more time online than with real people. Your home and social life may SUFFER as a direct consequence. Be very aware of how much time you allocate to chatting online. You can easily lose track, because cyberspace can be highly HYPNOTIC, causing tunnel vision and loss of a sense of time. Use an alarm clock if necessary and time your chat sessions.
GO TO IT!
Now that you have some “cyberchat street smarts,” go out there and ENJOY all the internet has to offer!
Colin Gabriel Hatcher, an attorney and lifelong volunteer youth worker, is the innovative mastermind behind SafetyEd International. With 21 years experience in education, 11 years of computer experience, and over 7 years working in internet related safety, child protection and child advocacy, Colin is an accomplished expert researcher and writer in the internet field -- as well as being an expert in internet and cyberspace law. You may visit his website at www.safetyed.org or contact him at .
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