The Age
Love on the Net

By HELEN RAZER

Friday 11 February 2000


It was, as ever, the august feminine periodical New Idea that told of a significant cultural turn. Broad-band, digital, meta-global interactivity is IN, apparently, and low-tech pursuits such as making savory skewers and macrame owls are OUT.

Of course, the fact of the Internet's towering economic and societal might may have been underscored for many of you by Ted Turner's recent union with AOL. (Truly, did he have to afford the priapic analogy between massive Net Gain and his initial sexual encounter? Turner reported that he transferred his Time Warner shares to clinch the online merger with "as much enthusiasm" as when he initially "made love" to a woman some 42 years ago. Which might mean, of course, that he felt as though he had given Steve Case a pat on the rump and possibly 20 bucks to buy himself something nice.)

In the course of invaluable research, a newbie (read, She Who Has The Good Fortune To Avoid All Online Activity Until Now) friend and I were chuckling lavishly and meanly at a fashion spread featuring a frightful concatenation called Real Blondes. The official record company line about their collision insisted that all three flawless Aryan goddesses met in an Internet chat room.

Is that possible? asked my friend, aware of my online chat addiction. I assured her that it was unlikely that any single human subject quite so attractive ever bothered with a modem. He or she would be out and engaged in real discourse as opposed to the variety that relies on noughts, ones and tremendous provider bills.

Further, I warned, the improbability of three simultaneous online babe presences was right off the bloody spread sheet. And even if one so exorbitantly bouncy had made a textual assay to Lycos chat central, there was absolutely no way she'd bother to join a girl group with a best-before date of mid-March.

She'd be married and delivered to a Microsoft executive in Seattle by now.

An exchange about the life lived virtually ensued, natch. In short, I realised that the binary simulacrum of an existence that has become familiar to me, and countless others, remains abstruse to many more. I had rather begun to suspect that my web browser co-dependency was usual. But apparently there's one or two of you who cannot transliterate ROFLMFAO.

Well, I can't tell you, as this is a respectable broadsheet. However, I can sketch a brief psychoscape of the Internet and the curious intimacies it sires.

First, you ought to be apprised of the vast count of people who find companionship or actual, real, nondigital, mechanical love on the Net. Stories that appear in trash mags that esteem romantic unions generated online as exceptional fables are misleading. It happens all the time.

As I am an out user, those of my realworld milieu tend to more freely disclose details of their eventual offline encounters with other Net nerds and, indeed, the squalid minutiae of their online squelching. This latter practice has entered the common lexicon as cybersex. Which, I think, is far too tasteful and euphemistic a referent for the feat of typing with one paw and manipulating tool/s with the other. The less wholesome, but more candid, term fleshmeet describes the initial nonvirtual appointment with a Net friend. Which many of us apprehend with, perhaps, "as much enthusiasm" as the acquisition of $65 shares.

I ought not to dissect the matter of wetware, or offline bodies, and their mutual proximity too sedulously. It's the proper thing to respect the clandestine narratives of my online others. And if you think I'm going to tell you whether or not I bonked the stuffing out of Horny 4 U of Hoppers Crossing, well, get off the rancid shrimp, frankly.

I will allow, however, that I have squandered money, time and therapeutic hours in pursuit of binary consorts. Further, there are at least six couples of my acquaintance who maintain protracted, proper, grownup, let'schooseamutedshadeforthevalancetype relationships that had their genesis online. And I cannot count the number of bods I know who have enjoyed or endured zipless calisthenics initially procured at www.vapid.but.serviceable.porking.com.

Many gay blokes I know bear loads of pickup stories. However, this probably says more about their candor in such matters than their promiscuity.

Needless to impart, the Internet has produced a new constituency that transcends customary geopolitical and social borders and, essentially, within these new mutable margins a whole lot of shaking's goin' on. Enough said, I'm sworn to secrecy, connection with server has been reset etc.

Let us fix our attention now to the shape and nodes of onlineonly discourse.

Some folk find other online folk in multiuser domains, or MUDs. This queer reality frame demands the construction of an avatar, or visual identity. There are DungeonandDragontype MUDs where everyone's pixilated selfdom has a sabre, wand or a meaddependency problem and looks like a really crap participant at an anatomist's convention. And there is the furry or anthropomorphic kind of MUD where everyone looks like something off the side of a panel van circa 1973. Airbrushed whimsy, such as girl zebras in fetching hotpants and terribly phallicfalconstype deals.

MUD constituents roleplay and try to preserve the integrity (?!) of their breed or character. They do, in fact, have international MUDmeets where they all get together and whack on fluffy dog suits.

There are other gaming loci on the Net. When one is playing a particular game, such as backgammon or bridge, one can often chat or even teleconference. Here the text or speech is secondary to competition and generally proceeds along the lines of "gg" for good game, "np" for no problem, "tx" for thanks, and "fu" for obvious reasons.

These are not the most companionate of arenas and, to my knowledge, few passionate fascinations are forged. Although, I have been playing a scrabble variation called wordox lately (go to www.won.net/channels/quick games/wordox/index.html) and there's some pretty damn salacious blossoming going on in the chat window. Easy.To.Beat83 DEFINITELY has the hots for a Louisiana ingenue who prefers the designation ISmellBad. Much talk of insensitive parents, ripening hormones and the untenable cost of air travel can be viewed. These are minute htmlpotatoes when contrasted with the raging, teeming singles bar that is chat.

The interface is simple, the procedure is compelling and the pickings are overblown. Essentially, chat, such as that you can join by linking from the yahoo.com search engine, is a pretty humble download that unites millions of people and proffers the option of specialinterest rooms.

Despite the infinite division of chat identities into discrete areas, the interaction tends, as in life, to be informed by the desires to impress, have sex with and embarrass others.

You type "nonsense" into a bar that appears on your screen and up to 40 other people provide frequently drab rejoinders asking relentlessly - despite the hyperintellectual hype that the Net is a realm that disdains the imposition of workaday prejudice - a/s/l? or age, sex and location. Even as one is happily disembodied, other users will demand your extrication from the virtual.

It's a relief to locate friends and potential bonks who get your more arcane pleasures. I will never forget, for example, my collision with a female Turkish student (ottoman71) who nursed the same passion for arcane French feminist writer Helene Cixous as I. Her observations on bifurcated identity caused me to LMAO (laugh my arse off). Others I know have been similarly relieved and delighted to find that their proclivities, whether they be for French feminist poststructuralism, Italianate design or vegan barbecue, are shared.

Similar refinements are, often times, a potent aphrodisiac.

Online understandings can turn just as sour as their veritable counterparts, of course. And the interface, like all new technologies, enables the potential for novel derailment and disaster. One can be enjoying an impassioned textual relationship with an identity who appears more complementary than any you have yet met and discover that they are involved with five or six other people in a similarly toroid mode or, worse, that they're logging on under a different nick (user name, very expendable, procurable things) and anonymously testing your own fidelity. Worse, they can just disappear altogether.

Although it is true that the user may well have to tolerate identically uninspiring drivel in virtual vestibules with names so misleadingly distinct as The Monotheism And You Lobby and, my especial favorite, Men Sucking Men, there does arise occasional delirious frissons of mutual regard.

I'm not the first person to observe the parallels between love and war. Remotecontrol romance, like the new war that has conquered space and the need for intimacy with the thing that its projectile will hit, allows for great daring and calamity. As in robotic war, the speed of love and coalescence online may be costly and distressing.

Much has been written about the history of combat and its technological systems. As more unions are forged online, we might be impelled to accumulate an intriguing archaeology of love and the self. We will learn about the infrastructure of affection and identity! And that's a recommendation for the pursuit of Net exchanges, I suppose. That, and it's cheaper than a video.