During my junior year of college, way back in 2000, I wrote an article for a short-lived e-mag named ReWired. It was our English program's take on the more-popular magazine, Wired. For one of my submissions, I interviewed my friend's roommate to illustrate the pull of online chat rooms, which were probably at the height of their popularity.
This is one of the better things I've written in my lifetime, so I wanted to share. I won't be offended if you stop halfway through.
It is funny, though, how our view of technology — and what is now commonplace — can change so drastically in a decade.
(If you get to the end and wonder where I am going with the quote from Thomas Laudal…yeah, I don't know, either.)
Pimpin: Hey, a/s/l check.
stargirl111: Yeah, I got a pic to trade. And I'm a hottie.
bowl_4_u: This room is whack. I'm outtie 5000.
cute_and_single: hi pimpin
jocksport456: u e-mail it first
In a typical chat room, like the one shown above, there are numerous conversations going on at once. People throw caution to the wind and take on personalities that sometimes are the complete opposite of their real life personas. For example, "stargirl111" is quite possibly not a "hottie" as she claims to be, but will say she is because she yearns to find that special someone in this virtual world. If the guy, or so he says, doesn't find her attractive, he will most likely ignore her the rest of the time or leave the chat room. "Stargirl111" will move on. And so the cycle begins for the upteenth time and certainly not the last time.
In a personal conversation, the body acts as a barometer for what the person really feels. The shuffling of feet could mean nervousness, shyness, or it could mean the person wants to get the hell out of that conversation. It would be considered rude to just walk away, especially if you know the person and will likely see them again. In a chat room, the body is taken out of the conversation.
The disappearance of the body is part of a new school of thought called "Virtual Reality Theory." Professors at colleges around the country are starting to believe in chat rooms as a new tool of teaching while some of us still see it as a way of flirting with the opposite sex. Either way we look at it, the two sides converge at one crucial point: The Body. After looking at the the issue from two different angles, we begin to see how.
What About Bob?
Bob is a twenty-year old Sales and Marketing Director for a manufacturing company in Michigan. Bob has some college education since he was going to school to study mechanical engineering before taking this job. He is single and shares a condominium with a friend he used to work with. Bob spends a lot of his free time in chat room.
Since discovering America Online, Bob is somewhat addicted to these rooms. As he logs on, I notice that his Buddy List contains over 80 "friends," ninety-five percent of whom he has never met. "I basically see the Internet as a way to meet new people," Bob says. As he sits down, a friend from the "real world" sends him an instant message (IM). "THis is my friend Frank from Germany. I communicate with him on-line because I'm too cheap to call him," Bob explains.
Only 10-15 "friends" on his Buddy List are guys. The majority are girls that he has met on-line. They are mostly local girls since he considers talking to non-locals a waste of time. "I don't like talking to people from, say, Utah. And, I'm not very fond of Mormons." As we are talking and chatting, one of his "friends" comes on-line. "Oh look, it's Dana!" Bob has never met Dana in real life even though they have been chatting for nearly two years now. "She's fun to talk to and her birthday is October 31st and I thought that was interesting," he says. "Besides, she has had a boyfriend the whole time."
Out of all the girls that Bob has met online, he has only met five of them in real life. He even dated one of them (Sarah) for six months, and he had the pictures to prove it. He told me that all five acted the same way in real life than they did in the chat rooms. I was curious about this, so I asked Bob if we would have gone up and started talking to Sarah if she just happened to be walking by. "I would want to," said Bob. "But would you?" I asked. "No."
Bob has been on-line 20 minutes and he already has six conversations going at one time. He has spoken with a few of these before but most of them he just met. "Gotta find a common link to start a conversation," Bob explains as he IMs a girl asking where she is from. Once he finds out she went to high school fifteen minutes away, the conversation begins. As they chat, I pursue the issue further about the difference between chat room conversations and a real life conversation. "The bluntness is beautiful because you can be (blunt)," he says. "You don't have to worry about being smacked." I think it is safe to say that there is a different persona on-line than there is off-line. To back his statement up, Bob says: "I would never approach a girl in real life because out of pure shyness. It is more difficult to approach a girl in person. The Internet is easier. If I don't like the conversation, I can click 'Cancel'."
Bob goes into a Detroit chat room to try and meet some more girls. After only a few minutes of trying, he meets a girl named "Sunnflower." She has a picture to send but only if Bob sends his first. They swap photos, and Bob likes what he sees. He tels her that she is "a definite cutie." "I like to see if there is a picture before I waste my time talking to them," he says. While he is talking to "Sunnflower", Bob starts looking through profiles of other users who are online. Thanks to the freedom of chat rooms, Bob doesn't have to talk to anyone he doesn't want to. Hiding behind the veil of a computer screen in the comfort of his own home, Bob is able to pick and choose the ones he shall talk to. If he doesn't want to talk to them, they won't know the difference. It's not like they see him staring at them from across the room, either.
He reads the profile of "JodyGirl0213" and it says that she is an administrative assistant. "That means she is boring," he says, referring to her job, "but let's see if she's hot."
Chat Rooms in the Classroom
At the University of Detroit-Mercy, Sister Christian Koontz is taking a giant step in making these chat rooms, once thought of as strictly a recreational tool, a part of Academia. She teaches a class in English called "The Journal." Her class can meet her in a chat room and discuss or ask her questions. The chat rooms are provided by a listserv service called Egroups. Although hesitant to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of chat rooms, due to the fact that she herself is still learning, Sister Koontz thinks that there is a gigantic upside to this idea. "I do think chat rooms have significant, and as far as I am aware, largely untapped, value to academic discourse," she explained through an e-mail. "I see the chat room as a fertile intermediary space, bridging personal journaling and formal academic writing, a space where students can write, to a certain extent, out of an atmosphere, attitudes, and orientation similar to that[sic] I believe to be the most conducive to effective journal work and begin to give rhetorical form to their writing, almost without realizing it because audience presence is real to them yet not so intimidating as a physically present audience is," Koontz added.
The last part of her statement can be directly connected to what our friend Bob said about talking on-line. Sister Koontz's students find it easier to talk when they can't see anyone or don't know who they are talking to, and there is no body to deal with in these conversations.
Toward the end of the e-mail message, Sister Koontz said that she advocates a "considerable application" of Harrison Owen's theories on "Open Space Technology." Open Space Technology is one way to enable all kinds of people, in any kind of organization, to create inspired meetings and events. Over the last 15 years, it has also become clear that opening space, as an intentional leadership practice, can create inspired organizations, where ordinary people work together to create extraordinary results with regularity. Sister Koonts is trying to get her students to reach this goal through the power of virtual reality.
We once thought of online classes as something that would happen in the future. Five years ago, we imagined a world where we could get out of bed, turn on the computer, and attend classes in our underwear. Well, now we can. Students don't have to be worried about making a dumb comment or walking into class late and being stared at; with on-line classes, we lose the human element that comes with "regular" classes. Chances are, no student knows what any of the other students look like, and therefore, that have no reservations about participating in class. The potential for embarrassment is just nonexistent.
The Fate of the "Real World"
In the real world, there is something us humans like to call "fate." We have no power over it and it controls every move we make. In a virtual world, would fate be a possibility? If we programmed these worlds, wouldn't we be playing God and thus, determining fate? To quote Thomas Laudal on this issue, he says: "People make VWs (virtual worlds) while God, or something/something quite different than people, created the real world. Does this distinguish the real world from the virtual worlds? Hardly. The truth is that we don't have a clue who — or what — created our real world. But even if we knew for a fact that people like ourselves did NOT create the real world, this would not be a significant difference between virtual and real worlds…"
The significant issue here is that most people in chat rooms, like Bob and Sister Koontz'[sic] students, view it as a "fake" world. Quite the opposite of the real world, they can do things in this "fake" world that they wouldn't normally do. The students, who would be terrified of public speaking in real life, can speak in front of a large number of people while sitting at home in a robe.
These chat rooms are, in a sense, small virtual worlds where the "citizens" leave their bodies at home and explore unknown territories. The "souls" come and go as they please and there are no repercussions. Anyone can get away with anything. At least anything they say can be dismissed since actions do not speak louder than words.