Reading Between the Lines

I’m currently reading a dissertation as part of a reading committee. While I don’t want to reveal too much (there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s not my work to release), I will share one point that has me thinking. In the author’s analysis of why the internet is conducive for fostering intimacy, she notes that even in the “lean nature of a brief electronic note,” much can be said. In other words, we can read a lot into what is there, and feel the connection between another.

While I think this can be true, I also believe something else can happen: we can read a “lean” message and OVER-interpret its meaning. After all, sometimes a brief message is just that — and there is no deeper meaning behind the words. I can see youth falling victim to something along these lines when getting a note from a crush or potential friend — maybe because when I was young, I was vulnerable to this. I could dwell on the smallest little interaction, searching for the meaning behind it while the person in question had long since forgotten it: after all, there was no meaning to be had. I have since seen this tendency when I was a sexpert/relationship advice person for teens. One of the most common questions I would get from youth all over the country was simply this: “does (s)he like me?” Of course, there was always a story to accompany the question, that went something along the lines of:

“I like this guy and I want to know if he likes me. Today, at our lockers, I dropped my book and he picked it up for me and smiled. I thanked him and he said he would see me later. Then, in math class, I think I thought him looking at me. I think about him all the time. Just yesterday he even sort of waved at me in the hall! What do you think? Should I ask him out?”

This was in the early stages of the internet (1998-2000) and IM was alive and kicking, but not in full swing. I can’t imagine the context I would have gotten along with these questions if there was extensive IM conversations involved. I simple 🙂 would turn into “he likes me;” a long conversation online might turn into a meaningful time together, when it was simply something to do while working on a homework assignment or talking to nine other people that night. Or, it could indeed be the start of a new love. We simply don’t know. When is lean, lean and when is it packed with inneundo and implication? And can we really ever tell without, well asking and as a result taking away the brevity? I’m not sure if we can, but I do believe it’s another layer we need to better understand if we are to appreciate how online communication shapes love and relationships.

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More on online safety

One of my high school graduation gifts was a brand new computer. I didn’t have to share it with anyone, and I could download as much music as I wanted to – without using all Dad’s memory. However, with that new computer came new responsibilities; keeping myself safe while online (and not filling the hard drive with music before I even moved away to college). My parents were pretty oblivious to the dangers of being online, and were quite surprised when they realized that I could easily spend a few hours chatting (using ICQ … that dates me) with people I had never met in person.

Do you know a graduate who got a laptop? Do you know how to help them be safe online? Here are some tips for keeping both youth and adults safe while using the internet:
• Get a free email account; Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo all have easily created emails
• Select a gender-neutral username and email; anything overly feminine or sexual may attract unwanted attention
• If you’re using an IM client (Gmail, Yahoo, AIM), block or ignore unwanted users who may be talking to you
• Don’t let others draw you into online conflict; ignoring harassment, rather than defending yourself may not seem like the best thing to do, but by responding, you’re letting that harasser know that they’ve touched a nerve.
• Only “say” online what you would actually say to someone’s face; words travel quickly and you need to be able to stand behind your words.
• Don’t share personal information: your full name, your address, your phone number, any credit card information or even identifying details about yourself. I know this is hard (I even have a hard time doing it here), but it’s worth it in the end!
• When opening emails, use caution – attachments can be dangerous – only open them from those you know.
• Remember that if you’re uncomfortable in a chat room (forum/message board/etc), you can leave.
• A specific tip for parents: watch what your children are doing. If they’re home alone a lot, and you’re worried about their internet use, you can password protect things to prevent their over-surfing. Watch the history with regards to their internet use, and remind them that you’re checking in on them.

The internet doesn’t have to be a scary place; it can be made incredibly safe, if you’re willing to put forth the effort!

On a completely different note: Happy National Ice Tea Month, Turkey Lover’s Months, Fresh Fruit & Vegetables Month, Papaya Month, Dairy Month all along with Internet Safety Month!

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