The Changing Face of Online Strangers

Column by Matt Kartanata
kartanat@grinnell.edu

Matt Kartanata - Leina'ala Voss

My parents raised me Catholic, meaning that after what seemed to be an arbitrary number of masses, I would inevitably attend confession. It’s one of the seven sacraments in Catholicism, and most people know it by the tired portrayal of a dark, dramatic and cathartic talk to an unseen priest through a metal grate. But because my own knowledge of confession was informed largely by television and movies, where people confessed about murdering people (or even worse, masturbating!), my prepubescent self was confused that I was going to confession at all — what wrong had I done? So I recited what sins I could remember: that I had eaten too much ice cream that week, or that I had taken pens from the girl sitting next to me in class, or that during mass, I had dozed off during the sermon. Mostly however, I just wanted to talk about problems in my life. That, yes, I had fallen asleep during a crucial part of mass, but that I felt worse about having trouble making friends in school. My first attempt to seek out a (semi) anonymous friend in my church pastor failed miserably, as he was more concerned with my redemption than my poor social skills.

Growing up, my neighborhood had few children, and while my parents encouraged me to play outside, their hope of me making friends with our neighbors died out after a boy across the street had knocked on our door and mistaken me for a different Asian kid in his class, and had come to ask about his math homework. It was at an early age, then, that I sought out friends elsewhere.

RuneScape, a browser-based role-playing game, was in its heyday (this was around 2005), and having just installed the latest version of AOL, I was prepared to take my dial-up connection to its fullest potential. In RuneScape, you can fight creatures, go on quests of exploration, barter and trade with merchants and inevitably, talk to strangers. I was savvy with all the non-social aspects of the game, but was genuinely taken aback when once, a fellow user asked to be my friend. My parents had lectured me about stranger danger, how to navigate physical spaces discreetly and after watching an episode of 20/20, how this extended to the Internet world. But I was intrigued by this proposition of friendship, and after agreeing, went on to play RuneScape with this person on and off for nearly three years without knowing who they really were.

For what it’s worth, I can’t remember any of what we discussed over those years — only that this person’s name was Ryan and that they were fun to talk to. I suspect that my story isn’t that uncommon of a narrative. Across the web, people are making connections with complete strangers, sometimes never knowing their true identity, sometimes in relationships as ephemeral as my own, but perhaps much stronger as well. The Internet has changed the way we look at strangers. Certainly, there exist dangerous people who present and engage with others in a pedestrian manner, but overwhelmingly, that most people are genuinely interested in finding a connection. Whole communities are born out of strangers whose only tangible point of unity might be a common platform, common interest or their very anonymity. I think of various forums ranging from subreddits to Tumblr communities to tech troubleshooting websites, built up almost single-handedly by their user base for fellow members of their specific community in an act of online altruism. There are hardly tangible incentives for people to devote this kind of time to complete strangers beyond that very act, and still, people do it.

This phenomenon is in some ways encouraging and in others intimidating. In a world where there are whole billboards dedicated to warning drivers against hitchhikers, and the individualism of the family unit is prioritized versus the camaraderie of the immediate community, it is encouraging that we are rethinking who exactly a stranger might be, disconnecting their geographic place in favor of their common interests, beliefs and actions. But at the same time, it breeds caution that these very same communities being built by strangers for strangers can also be engineered as machines of hate and conscious harm, linking individuals that might otherwise have never crossed paths. If all we see of a person through an online interaction is their opinion or attitude, we risk forgetting that they’re a real, physical person behind the smoke and mirror act of the Internet, and that there exist real, tangible harms to whatever contact we may have. We ought to temper our interactions, to recognize and adjust to this new face of the old stranger.