Sunday, 5 December 2010

Who am I really and am I an on-line friend?

I may tell you that I am mid 50s, married, a teacher, mother of a houseful of grown up children, most of whom have children – so – a grandmother too, but am I who I claim to be?

You may tell me you are mid 30s, living with your partner, a teacher, interested in technology and I believe you!


Can on-line/ virtual friendships be taken seriously?

Can you possibly know who I am from what I choose to reveal about myself?

Can I possibly know you from our on-line conversations?

How can we know who is a friend?

I talk to you in an on-line situation, plan events, work alongside you, trust you as a friend – an on-line friend. I am happy to see you. I chat to you freely, sharing incidents, maybe some friendly local gossip, maybe family details. I have no fear.
I am comfortable and happy with that relationship.
Is it real?

You work in the same school as me. I see you every day.
I gather from conversations your wife’s name, your children’s names, the school they go to, the minutiae of daily life with young children.  The birthdays, the presents, the illnesses, days off, struggling to cope with child care...
I see your eyes during conversation. I see how you cope and deal with small children, colleagues and parents...
I feel that I know you, I share the daily hassles to cope with work, a family etc.. I consider you a friend.
One night you up-sticks move out of the family home and into the home of a lover.
Did I really know you?

I worked alongside you in real life, called upon you when I had problems with technology and you solved them. I was happy to see you arrive. I chatted to you happily, maybe gossiped about friends, mostly just friendly stuff but more likely current events, maybe family events. I had no fear. I considered you a friend.
Years later I heard you were in gaol – your crime was really not nice. I may have been the person on the receiving end... 

What is it to know a person? How can I know a person in physical life or in virtual life?
What an dilemma. I do and always have chosen to believe people are inherently good, friendly and for the most part trustworthy. I know for many money is an issue and they may not have paid for every last video they watch, song they listen to, or picture they use and that is not the sort of trustworthiness or honesty that I am talking about. It is the trust when someone is not under pressure, people in a natural, relaxed frame of mind such as most that we meet in an on-line or local social situation when I feel they should have no reason to fabricate their life.
Am I wrong?
I don’t think so.

Recently I have read with horror the plight of a friend – dare I say that? An on-line friend – can that really be though?
He has suffered dreadfully at the hands of someone whom he thought of as one of his on-line friends - one party deliberately wanting to hurt another – that is strange, abhorrent even to me who dreads accidentally hurting anyone let alone someone I consider a friend... How can anyone do that? It really upset me I was saddened, shocked, experienced pain, but can I really empathise with someone who is a virtual friend?

How can we know who we are talking to when we are on-line?

Part of every one of my e-safety courses is trying to answer the question “How can we know who we are talking to when we are on-line?” During the session delegates try to make a poster of three questions that we can give to pupils so that they can say yes – this is someone I can trust, it is a safe on-line friend, but we have never yet managed it.  We make a question  – think it is good, then comes the “Ah but...” moment. So the question fails. This happens over and over again with every group of people working on the exercise.

The question seems to be unanswerable.

Thinking about cyber bullying

I have happily set off on several journeys to meet my on-line friends and absolutely love them – more from having physically met them, than knowing them purely in the on-line world where they are still rather abstract.
Have they been genuine people?
Has what they have told me been true?
Probably! I have no reason to doubt it.
I don’t want to know private details of friends’ lives if they are on-line friends any more than if they are working in the same building as me all day every day, or I grew up with them and have known them all my life. We are all entitled to as much privacy in our lives as we require. We all choose what to share with others and what to keep hidden. So if I feel that all my friends – on-line or off, are friends, they are not deliberately lying to me, they are not pretending to be someone they are not, and that they are all simply delightful people is there an issue?

Clearly there is as the plight of one particular friend shows.

Is it anything to do with the on-line world? That is where the problem occurred.
What is it in the on-line world that makes such a difference?
Tone of voice – in the on-line world it is often not there as a hint of how seriously messages of being made – is that an issue?
Eye contact – in the on-line world it is missing – is that an issue?
Body language - in the real world distances, personal space, touch or lack of, these things may more easily help people to understand the social requirements of a situation - is the lack of that a contributor?
When physically with someone I  can see easily if words are upsetting someone – so I stop talking, back track, apologise, try to resolve the issue? Is not being able to see someone an issue?

Did someone set out deliberately to destroy someone else?
So maybe I should try going on-line and  deliberately set out to mislead another person, pretend I am 25, make up elaborate stories to hide my real family, age etc... nooo – could not keep that up and no interest in trying to deny who I am or my lovely family...
If I even say something innocently that gets misinterpreted – oh dear, full of apologies and explanations ... followed by a quiet embarrassed withdrawal...

So if someone did deliberately set out to deceive or destroy someone else is that a sign of illness? Is a cyberbully an ill person? If so how can we recognise the illness, deal with it? Support that ill person?

I have to go on trusting people are who they say they are, enjoying their company and all the rest. However – I know how hard it was to completely avoid one on-line “friend”  who decided I needed to be someone else and do things that I am not prepared to do to meet his demands, who told me I was a useless teacher because I did not jump through his hoops when evaluating my own work, he had access to me on MSN, Twitter, e-mail, in Second Life, through various Nings etc., it took ages to stop the contact and was an experience I really did not enjoy. Earlier this year I was at an on-line event and he was present – I was able to ignore him and enjoy the event without contact and without worry, but it did take a while! I am very lucky of course – I am strong and have a family who support me! I read another story yesterday about a teacher who had been bullied in school and it had destroyed her confidence so much so that she is locked away at home unable to work at the moment.

Can I honestly carry on teaching about e-safety and cyber bullying when all I have are questions? I have to! We all have to pull together to stop cyberbullying – any sort of bullying – it destroys lives and what possible satisfaction can come from that? We must try to recognise spark points, reasons, illness involved and create more and better support for all involved.


Eloise said...

While cyber-bullying can't be dismissed and shouldn't be trivialised, I can't help wondering if trying to make three questions to determine if X is your friend is actually a constructive approach.

Not saying you shouldn't try, but can you think of three questions you can ask that reliably determine if someone you meet in the flesh is your friend? And if you meet them in the flesh you probably have a reasonable estimate of age and gender to go on which you may or may not online.

And if you can't do it for atomic space friends why should you be able to do it for online ones? If you can... what questions do you need to add to the list to cope with the reduced information you have online.

I've not seriously thought about the problem, but my first couple of stabs at thinking of the questions fall down as being suitable for kids because they rely on things like consistency of words and actions and while children might be able and willing to do that I'm not sure how easy it is even for adults. Plus, of course, particularly for kids, friendships change quite rapidly.

Carolrb said...

Thanks for the comment El :-)
It seemed like a really good idea when suggested - a bit like traffic lights, one bad answer, like a red light, don't go there, an amber answer - it maybe okay, just be careful and all green answers - should be good - take care but go for it! It was someone on an e-safety course with me who suggested it, a professor from the Open Univesity so I take no credit whatsoever for the idea. She was really enthusiastic and thought it would be wonderful if pupils could run down a simple 3 point check list to see if it may be safe to proceed with chatting / communicating / texting etc. with someone.
It was only when we came to make the questions we began to realise how hard it is :-)After that I slotted the same exercise into every course, it really does aid discussion.

You are completely right though, the same three questions to determine friends in the physical world is probably impossible. It would be great though to come up with a simple formula to help children but basically it all depends on people being honest and sadly all too often they are not :-(

Eloise said...

Well if it provokes a lot of discussion that's useful, then there's clearly use to the exercise from a learning point of view - even if you don't get the list for the children.

I think my current thoughts are that you'd start with "proceed with caution" and suggest things like "Do they use words you'd expect?" and "Do they sound like the person they claim to be?" and maybe a list of alarm phrases like "Let's meet" and "Don't tell your parents."

But still no closer to a reasonably short series of questions - and I wonder if you did have one how long it would be before the dangerous predators found it and worked out answers?

But provoking the discussion about it all sounds great.