When I was a college teacher a few years ago, I got an education, a harsh wake-up call, on the subject of identity and the Internet.
While walking from class to my office one afternoon, I overheard two female students discussing what they referred to as some "nasty threads." Being over 50, I assumed they were talking about someone’s dirty clothes. Threads, or vines, were apparel to my generation.
When the taller one said she had read "some nasty threads by that (expletive)," however, I knew I was ignorant of the latest incarnation of the word thread. The next day during individual conferences, I asked another student to explain the new use of thread.
"All the stuff, the posts, on a message board," she said.
When I still did not understand, she took her laptop from her bag and logged on to a social network site popular on campus. After reading more than a dozen messages, I had had enough. The writing was infantile and foul. My student pointed to a message I had not read, the most vulgar, the meanest and the most personal of all.
She asked if I could guess who the writer was. I had no idea because I did not recognize the "posted by" name. When she identified the writer, I did not believe her. How could it be? The alleged writer was pretty, well-groomed, smart, articulate, polite, always prompt to class and consistently on time with her homework. She was almost perfect, a solid B-plus student.
I was deflated. Each time I saw this profane young woman from then on, I had to temporarily look away. I was embarrassed to be aware of her other side. I realized I did not know this student at all: She was one person in class and another person altogether on the Internet. I realized also that I never again would naively think I really knew my students well.
I was facing the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dynamic of the Internet.
People were pretending, and the Internet was enabling them. Was each student a fraud? What about my colleagues? Were they scholars on campus and agents of the Marquis de Sade on the Web? The other day, a longtime acquaintance confided that she had lied about her physical attributes on an online dating service. Her job as a secretary in the president’s office at a large business morphed into "special assistant to the president." Did she feel guilty about airbrushing her job title? "Nope," she said. "I got my man." She said that to improve their identities, most people lie on dating service Web sites. A quick Google search confirmed her claim. According to Scientific American magazine, more than 90 percent of love-starved people lie in their online dating profiles.
In an entry titled "Top 10 online dating lies," the Web site hyd-masti.com states that "women in their 20s and 30s slyly deduct anywhere from 5 to 20 pounds from their weight, while men tend to lie about income, education level and, yes, relationship status." Here are the top 10 online dating lies, with select translations:
10. "I’m slim and petite."
9. "I’m tall, dark and handsome."
8. "I’m 29."
7. "My interests include good wine, music and fine dining."
6. "I’m sensitive, smart and funny."
Translation: Isn’t that too much of a good thing? "I’m a hypersensitive, pretentious wanna-be intellectual and I think too much of myself."
5. "I make more than $250,000 per year."
4. "I’m not big on playing games."
3. "I can’t wait to meet you."
2. "I just got out of a long relationship, so I’m mainly looking for friends right now."
Translation: "Having just escaped a bitter, years-long romantic battle, I can’t wait for a casual fling now to help me temporarily forget my misery."
1. "As the CEO of a successful Internet startup, I enjoy the finer things in life."
Translation: "As the founder of a barely-there mail order business, I enjoy spending every second of my time on the Internet, watching porn, gambling and living vicariously."
Who are we — really?
The Internet has enabled us to assume as many virtual identities as we can juggle. A recent article on this topic in the Christian Science Monitor posed these questions: "With the opportunity to present so many different personas, is there a danger of forgetting who we truly are? Could our real identities slip away?"
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)spttimes.com)