The Digital brings us closer to each other, there is no doubt about that. Distances that used to be unbridgeable are now crossed in the blink of an eye. Talking with someone from Portugal, and chatting up with a friend from America, nothing seems impossible in these modern times. Meeting up with friends is no longer limited to the persons from the neighborhood, but can also entail meeting up with your friends in an online community. Just hit the send button and the connection is made. In comparison to the real world, where people can be loud, pushy, and hyper, the Digital world seems like a safe place to connect with people at your own pace.
But when looking a bit deeper into connections made in the Digital world it seems that this doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes because this world is so Digital, it’s hard to determine who people truly are, and it’s because of the Digital that people who are far away, suddenly seem closer than the people next to you. I will illustrate this with several personal examples.
Let’s take a look at a fairly innocent medium, like Whatsapp. Like many other media, Whatsapp has several functions that show certain statuses, like: “Last been online at [insert time]”, “Now online/offline”, “Message read”, “Now typing…”. Whereas most people don’t focus too much on this, this isn’t the case for everyone. I’ve had friends who used to keep track of my online statuses and make comments on them. Why are you online but not reading my messages? Who are you talking to? Why didn’t you instantly read me when you got online?
Online communities can also give a false sense of knowing each other. Everyone can be everything online, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish who someone really is. This can work both ways, I had people declaring their undying love to me after just chatting for two weeks (them claiming they knew me extremely well, even though I had never met them for real), but I also met people who I thought were nice, but in the end, only interested in talking about sex. At least 60% of the harassment victims online are women and after being in online communities for several years now, I can almost say that I am kind of used to being approached in a certain way. This has gone so far that in games, I usually keep silent about the fact that I’m a girl.
Of course, the dangers of the online world are known far and wide. Children are often getting warned about it. But if we are so aware of all of this, why is it so hard to do something about it?
The problem with the Digital is that it’s difficult to determine what you are dealing with. When someone stalks you in real life, and you got an unsafe feeling, that alone is enough to request a restraining order. But how does one do that online? That guy on Whatsapp didn’t make me feel unsafe and he also never threatened me. Still, I did feel like that every time I picked up my phone, I was being watched on all social media platforms. Of course, our friendship didn’t start out like that, it slowly but surely crept into his behavior, increasing his stalking antics little by little. Looking at it like that, does it really differ that much from how real-life stalking usually goes?
Another problem is the lack of age restriction. When a young girl gets followed on the street by a creepy-looking adult man carrying around a gun, I’m sure someone would say or do something. But online, where no one sees the girl, the man, nor the gun, this seems like a hard thing to do.
Just like 13 years old me hadn’t realized that I could just turn off the Whatsapp Status tracking.
Lindgren, Simon. Digital Media & Society. London: SAGE, 2017.