About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Internet Boundaries, or the Lack Thereof...

Boundaries. We all need them. Life would be horribly chaotic (and dangerous) if we didn't heed them. We have stoplights and speed limits to prevent ourselves from killing each other (more often) with our cars. We don't walk in on people when they're in the bathroom or their bedrooms because we generally agree some actions are private. We don't read each other's mail. We generally don't ask each other how much we make or how much our houses cost. Our laws stipulate how old you have to be to go to school, vote, drink, drive, smoke, or have sex with somebody older than you. Most of us agree that the laws are intended to protect youth, as well as to acknowledge that some activities belong in an adult realm, not a child's. Some privileges must be earned -- either by simple maturity, or by tests. While we recognize that cultures define what is private and what is public -- and that these definitions often have flaws -- all cultures have this distinction. Boundaries keep us civilized.

Most of us know that boundaries are challenged constantly by cultural change. Most people my age, for instance, grew up calling all adults "Mr." and "Mrs." Yet most people my age do a double-take if a child addresses us that way now. NONE of my children's friends use a title in addressing me. Yet, even though I always ask adults how they prefer my children to address them, I know only one my age who requests children call her "Mrs. (last name)". Predictably, my kids think that's weird. In contemporary culture, it is no longer normative for children to address adults with a title. I'm not sure that's good for kids, but it's true.

However, I think the internet poses a much more alarming assault on boundaries. While a friend of mine complemented me last week by claiming that I am "farther along than her" in knowing the new etiquette of interaction, I think that's probably not true, or at the very least, I do not consistently honor boundaries that I should.

I have written before that the internet tempts me to the "dark side," meaning that I have searched for information on the internet that was none of my business, and have "lurked" in chat rooms, reading other people's discussions on crap that interests me. Before the dawn of the internet, I would have had to hire a private investigator (which I never could have afforded and never would have thought to do). Now, it is WAY too easy to know stuff that is, honestly, none of your (my) business.

Think about that: the internet has busted boundaries between private and public unlike anything else. And it takes a person with ENORMOUS self-control to avoid using the internet in inappropriate ways. (And I'm not talking looking up porn -- that's a whole other discussion -- I'm just discussing looking up facts about people that perhaps you shouldn't ask.)

I do not, for a second, think that my internet behavior makes me unusual, or dangerous. However, people who ARE dangerous use it the same way, and it is alarming how much you can learn about people (even non-famous people) by googling them.

A couple of (slightly funny) examples from the past week further illustrate the problem with internet boundaries.

Somebody I kinda know runs a fansite for somebody I kinda admire. She tweeted (I follow her on twitter) that fans should ask her questions and she'd answer them. Rather than sending her a tweet, I sent her a private email asking her something that, honestly, I know is not my business. (I said so in the email.) I admitted in the email that I occasionally google this question, but with no found answers. So, did she know? She answered me that she never googles such info because that's just not her business. I deservedly felt a little low...and I haven't googled that particular person or question since.

Why the hell was I behaving that way? I can make up all sorts of excuses ("I am such a baby nut, I just want to know if she had the baby"), but the bottom line is: the internet tempts people to look for answers to questions they shouldn't even ask, because *sometimes* the answers are there.

Another example: I noticed, on Twitter, that suddenly a certain TV star had an account. I looked briefly at his postings and figured that maybe it wasn't really him. (There are plenty of imposters out there.) So, I didn't follow him, even though a few days ago the account was public. (To those of you not on Twitter -- when an account is public, you can follow that person simply by clicking on the follow button, though, of course, people you attempt to follow can respond by blocking you.) Today, however, I noticed that his account is suddenly private. Turns out -- there's a good chance it IS him and now, if I want to follow him, I have to send a private request.

But should I? I don't know him! But in the new world of ever-changing boundaries, many people will send him follow requests, and he'll have to decide who to allow and who to block. Where is the boundary here between public and private? Is it simply personal choice? In Twitter, at least, that seems to be the answer.

An example from Facebook: somebody that I follow (one of the "semi-famous" I've referred to before) always posts very thought-provoking updates. This week, one of her updates sparked a particularly lively discussion, during which some rude things were said back and forth about meat-eaters and fur-wearers and the importance of consistency. To make a LONG story short, she responded to her (admittedly rude) responses in a way that made me question whether she was behaving appropriately for somebody who is a public figure. I sent her a private message, suggesting that perhaps another approach is in order, given her status. She responded SUPER-kindly back to me, actually thanking me for "lovingly putting her in her place."

Oh my God! Why did I think I had the right to do that? True, I did it privately, but still! I'm glad to say that it seems to have turned out alright, and I assured her she has every right to put me in MY place, should she see the need.

The point here is the lack of boundaries, and where they lie in public forums. What is permissible to say?

Another example: in a certain TV chatroom, there has been a LONG discussion about a certain star's anatomy, as well as admission from somebody who met this person that she groped his rear while having her picture taken with him. If this isn't a good example of busted boundaries, I don't know what is. It's wrong on many levels -- to grope somebody's ass you don't know, for starters. And then to post about it in a public forum!

I should have stayed away from the discussion, I know. But, the dark side tempted me again, this time to say, "Don't you guys worry about how you're perceived? Do you want the rest of us who read these posts to think you have no boundaries and no respect for the guy?" Predictably, I got both a personal message back from one of them (apologizing), and a public scolding from the other, claiming that it was all in fun and that OF COURSE they respect him.

Hmm...so respect in contemporary culture can include groping somebody and then blogging about it?

I have so much to learn.


  1. Unlike the 'real world' where our parents and grandparents taught us how not to be rude etc, the Internet is young enough that it's been a 'sort it out as you go' place for everyone involved.

    And it's not that the internet 'tempts' us more than the regular world methods might. Back in the day, I remember scouring microfiche to dig up info on Leonard Nimoy (was he REALLY Jewish?) it's just easier now.

    But as the runner of a fan site, I have to decide if I want to give into the part of me that would LOVE to delve into the dirty parts of my fav stars past, know it, and post it, or just not look at all. It's not easy, and it's taken me most of a decade to get to the point where I'm comfortable NOT looking at certain info. Then again, those TV chatrooms you mention I purposefully avoid, since some fans scare the crap out of me.

    In short: It's not the internet, it's fandom. It's just like those old zines and such we used to read, mimeographed (xerox? What's that?) purple text on grey paper. It's the same thing as people waiting for the ship to come in to get the next chapter of Dickens. It's just ... we can escape our own life and look at something else. Someone else. The world is bigger and smaller at the same time now, and we can look at so much more at once.

    But eventually, most fans have a watershed moment where we realize we're in too deep and we're acting like nutbars. If I was yours, then know that I think no less of you :) In fact, more of you for realizing it and thinking about it, rather than just reacting. That's what makes you good peoples.

    My own moment was not too different from yours. Someone said something like I did, in passing, and I felt like I'd been slapped. I realized what I was. Kafkaesque, even.

    I'll say this: Groping anyone is not okay, unless you're committed in a relationship, and even then, don't do it in public.

    So yeah. That fan is why we get bad names. :/

  2. Yes, I agree. But I felt the need to unload, confess, as it were, my "sins". And I totally agree that fandom is a scary place!

  3. I think it's okay to ask questions and make mistakes... the question is more: what is a mistake? It's always okay to be inquisitive and want to learn more about anything and everything!


Politeness is always appreciated.