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However, there is one major alluring quality of online affairs, and it’s something that we would all die for in real life - undivided attention.

“What’s virtual reality, Mum?” my boys asked.
One that’s as good as real, I guess. Now, three years on, they’re periodic natives of these outlying cyber lands. Where is this universe, lying vaguely somewhere between the remains of our ozone layer and the Milky Way? A place where our prime minister has promised that one day very soon, we will each have personal access to our own little star. A place to rewrite what god, fate or our genes had planned for us. To erase all imperfections and all miseries. This is truly being the mistress, or if we fancy a change, the master of our fates.

When I was a child, it was every small girl’s dream to have her own doll’s house. Of course, even the few rich and fortunate enough to acquire one for Christmas never quite aspired to ownership of those four storey Victorian mansions, containing their upstairs and downstairs worlds, which I still find myself examining in toy museums with almost a childlike awe. I’m afraid I had to be content with my DIY, one floor, uncarpeted, Lego bungalow.

But not to worry, now I can create my own big girl’s fun palace. And it will surpass those meagre childhood imaginings. This new and grand abode can be furnished with bejewelled rugs and gold shot silks. Forget those four storeys as I’m now mistress of my own metropolis with its magic portals. Make it look inviting, and surfers of the virtual cosmos will drop in to visit and explore. All you need is Pandora’s cyber box.

It’s easy to see how many are seduced by the prospect of virtual life and its undiscovered delights. To be whatever and whoever one has always dreamt of being. Just pick a persona and your new online identity awaits. The ‘Let’s Pretend’ games we played as kids, except that we’re playing big time now. Everything can be arranged. Thanks.

Hang on a minute, was I daydreaming? Perhaps we should swoop back down to earth for a momentary re-appraisal? It was seven years ago, when I was cajoled and enticed into setting up an e-mail account. It appeared I had been missing out on the cutting edge of communication. Initially, it was fun to have one’s working day scattered with pithy valentines, sent by my then seducer of body and imagination. Ah, but soon afterwards, our new plaything was to be commandeered by the bosses for work. Two dictums came into force – do check your email at least twice a working day, but do not be checking your e-mail twice an hour. There’s no denying that e-mail does peculiar things to the manner in which we select our words. Make-a-fast-buck computer guys published slim guides to the requisite etiquette, and their contents and wisdom were covertly perused and digested by even the intelligent and literate in the office. Frankly, I saw no sense in doing so myself. After all, I’d been fully accomplished in the art of letter writing for more than twenty years and throughout that time, I’d never felt the urge to pen expletives in block capitals, so why start worrying now? Flaming? What an absurd idea. All right, all right, there’s no need to SHOUT. Unfortunately, there was no chapter in these lonely planet guides about not wearing your emotions on your keyboard, just as you wouldn’t be seen dead wearing that other renowned troublemaker on your sleeve.

This, apparently common, occurrence of emotional outpourings, hateful and heartfelt alike, intrigued me and I have often pondered upon its whys and wherefores. I suppose typing is faster than writing, and less physically laborious, as long as one’s fairly proficient at it. We’re not talking Miss Moneypenny standards here, impressive word velocity can be achieved with only six and half
fingers put to task. See the words stream onto the page, this rapid river of emotionally driven consciousness flowing down upon the screen. No writers’ blocks to be found here. No writers’ cramp either, sadly. Before, one may have been enlightened by a fortuitous pause for calm reasoning or thoughtful reconsideration, occurring at some point in between sealing missive in envelope, hunting around for stamp, and the leisurely stroll to post-box. But too late now, none of that will save your day when it’s all become just a click-send away. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that whilst a sealed letter in transit, from post box to letter box, is the Queen’s property and woe betide anyone tampering with Her Majesty’s Mail, a sent e-mail can become common property, legally perused by employers and open to exploitation by unscrupulous recipients.

Traditional graphological analysis doesn’t get much of a look in with electronic correspondence. “Hm, Times New Roman as opposed to Arial. Yes, most interesting. In past studies, often found to be adopted by repressed male dominators and female managers hitting the glass ceiling, blah de blah”. Unlikely. For the personal touch to one’s message, we have the conception of a garrotted-at-90 degrees smiley face. How long is the gestational period of a smiley and are they conceived with a pc nerd’s head pinned to the desk, right angled to the monitor? My advice is to leave well alone - if you’re after funny faces, stick with Picasso. But, sooner or later, you realise that without them, misinterpretation keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box. Especially when in a hurry and forgetting to suffix one’s marginally acerbic witticisms with the requisite “ ~ joke!” or “~ not.” This will inevitably lead to “Ah, we meet again, Ms.Understood.”

And what about the devastatingly exciting world of online dating? Chat rooms, cyber sex, virtual love, and handles. Handles? What in heaven’s name are they? Oh, the nom de plume, the fancy dress signature, the party mask behind which we conceal ourselves. Sorry, but a handle like ‘Buffy Slayer’ says more to a woman about what the man’s not, rather than what he imagines himself to be. One wants to cry out - “Darling, you need to get a grip. On yourself, not your handle.” By the way, the only handles you won't come across here are love handles, as the natives are never fat, unattractive or unintelligent.

Inhabitants tend to fall into two categories, players and love-seekers. The twain should ne’er meet up but they do. Again and again and again. It can be a deadly game. On April 7th of this year, a 20 year old man from Texas, drove to San Antonio, eager to meet his online lover for the first time, a young woman by the name of Kelly. Three weeks later, his decomposed body was found, dumped in a ditch at a remote ranch in Texas hill country. He had been shot in the back of the head. Kelly had turned out to be Kenny. Caucasian, male, 6’2”, murderer. His game was deceiving young men into believing he was a woman. A beautiful but troubled young woman, trapped in a bad relationship, and searching in cyberspace for some knight in shining amour to rescue her. But our fair and distressed damsel turned killer when fearing that his female alter ego was about to be exposed.

Naturally, our love-seekers don’t want to hear these nasty tales. They will tell you that if you’ve not been in the situation yourself, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. End of discussion. Their hearts are over brimming with trust. Trust with which they have taken a gamble and they don’t want to know that the odds are long. They believe they have found true love. Looks, backgrounds, accents, intellect are immaterial, their souls have spoken to each other and their unparalleled, state-of-the-art romance will sustain humdrum reality…somehow, I doubt it. Granted, many things can be overlooked by true love’s rosy tint, but more often than not, it’s the minor attributes, not manifest in the exchange of e-love-mails although still guaranteed to irritate or dismay, that can be the breaking rather than the making. After all, would you buy something unseen?

However, there is one major alluring quality of online affairs, and it’s something that we would all die for in real life - undivided attention. You have it. There are no interruptions in cyber space. It’s quiet out there. No doorbells or phones ringing, no whining cries of “Mu-um!”, no sink full of washing-up amassing or packed lunches to assemble. To have someone’s total, undivided, sympathetic and loving attention on call - yes, such is also my idea of sublime happiness But real life it just isn’t.
Some question the existence of any significant difference between the personal ad and the chat room. The latter is just a sophisticated upgrade in technology, they say. Wrong. The big differential is time. Time spent relating, soul bonding or whatever. The personal ad is keen to hasten on towards its sole end of the face-to-face encounter. But in affairs online, not everyone wishes to hurry to the look, hear and touch stage, because before the first phone-call or date takes place, the depth of emotional involvement increases with the amount of time spent online. (It's all that heartfelt conscious streaming at work, remember.) This is the players’ weapon and their pitch is the computer screen. They can skilfully maintain play until they win, as in the case of the scam mongers; or for your 'emotional toyers', until things get uncomfortably close. Then whoosh….they vanish. You will never track down the domain of black holes from whence they sprang.

The online pursuit for love can soon turn into an addiction. Perhaps your primary relationship is not a happy one. Do your online friendships become increasingly important, often at the expense of real life relationships? How is infidelity defined? And does the absence of any physical touching reduce it to a piece of harmless flirtation? Apparently not. In fact this particular strain of absence appears to definitely make the heart grow fonder, inordinately so.

I once heard a virtual love-seeker admit that after a real life one-night stand, he’d subsequently been plagued with guilt. The object of guilt was his infidelity to a never 3-d encountered e-love. I thought “Uh-oh, we have an anorak’s anorak here.” Surely this sense of guilt was not a reaction often to be found? I asked a psychologist who has been studying internet addiction for the past three years. Yes it is, was my answer - such was my naivety.

Life on this side of the cyber fence isn’t much of a frolic if your partner is in the throes of some torrid e-affair. In 1996, Mr.G. in New Jersey filed for divorce and was seeking custody of his two young children. The grounds were that his spouse was carrying on a virtual affair with a cybersex partner who called himself “The Weasel” – not exactly what you’d call an enticing choice of handle, but maybe she was into Animals of Farthing Wood. Despite promising to end the affair, she didn’t. Instead she e-mailed Weasel to say that she’d just have to learn to be more careful. She wanted to be with him so badly that she was willing to chance it. Don’t forget, this little ‘it’ included possibly losing custody of her two children. Walking out on one’s kids, even ones you could cheerfully throttle on a regular basis, takes a lot of doing and an even greater lot of reason. But to do so for some unencountered unknown, concealed behind some handle? Now that beggars belief.

I don’t know if Mr.G got his divorce but I can sympathise with him. He may have had to prove, for it to be treated as adultery, that his wife and Weasel had plans for a tryst, - but personally, any defence along the lines of ‘no touchy, so no matter’ just isn’t good enough. I may be holding a minority view but surely a betrayal of trust and feelings is a far greater betrayal than one of the flesh. Then again, being a woman, I may lack this sense of physical ownership often found in men when it comes to their wives and offspring. Sex without love is as old as mankind, but now, thanks to technology, we also have its polar opposite – well, virtually.

All in all, I’d say it is advisable to keep a moderate rein on your heart. Let not the anonymity of online dating or the current culture for instant gratification make you cast caution to the winds. The instances of happy ever after are the exception and not the rule. But having been reprimanded already for commenting on something I’ve not ventured into, and never will, I shall leave the closing sentiment, poignantly expressed I thought, to a veteran –
"It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair…it's the hope."  

© A.Chan 2001

I'm a library assistant at a University in London, amongst other things, ex-musician, interior decorator... Born in Glasgow, where I gained a Masters degree in Philosophy and Psychlogy. Started writing short pieces about a year ago. Aim to document my life in form of 'faction'.
Amy Chan

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