If it's hard to know whether you are being spun a line when face to face with someone, it is going to be much harder keyboard to keyboard over the Internet. As more and more people build friendships and business contacts in the Internet's Usenet discussion forums, on Internet Relay Chat channels (a text-based version of CB radio or the telephone chat lines) and in the multi-user dungeons (see accompanying article), there will be many more hearts broken and innocents conned.
Many online relationships have a happy ending - some have even led to marriage - but those looking for friends in cyberspace need to be aware of the perils of taking other Internet users at face value.
The ability to hide behind a screen and keyboard has given many Net users a confidence they do not have in other social situations. Those that might be unable to come up with snappy quips in real life find it easier to be witty when they have the time to think and then type their response. Meeting an e-mail friend in the flesh can often be a disappointment.
But being without the power of body language when online can leave some people at a loss. Eva Pascoe, co-founder of the Cyberia cybercafe, met one boyfriend over the Net. Before meeting him face to face, she spoke to a number of his colleagues to find out what he looked like. "So I knew he was cute!" she says.
What surprised her was the difference in his personality. "Online, my ex was very mellow and open-minded. In real life, he's much more temperamental." Being unable to take advantage of his good looks in cyberspace had made him more humble. "It's quite hard to be cocky online."
For many people, being able to take on a different personality is all good, clean fun. The Australian artist Josephine Starrs says multi-user dungeons have given her the freedom to explore multiple personalities. "You can play at being different genders, different personalities. You can pretend to be a gay man, for example, and pretend to have sex with another man. Or you can describe yourself as a mist if you want."
But the Internet's anonymity has also brought out the dishonesty in some. A new-style Casanova has emerged, choosing his prey from Usenet newsgroups or IRC by their female-sounding e-mail addresses and wooing them with flattering e-mail overtures. These Don Juans then drop them as fast as they find them.
One woman sent her e-mail lover the airfare to meet her, only to find he had disappeared with the money.
As the Internet is used increasingly for business transactions, the problem of online versus real personality will become ever greater. Michael Herbert, head of market research company Michael Herbert Associates, has begun using the Internet as a place to hold international focus group discussions.
Initially he was worried that holding the discussions in cyberspace rather than face to face would make it difficult for the researchers to pick up nuances from the focus groups. He also expected them to have problems working out the type of people they were talking to, without clues such as the make of their suit, their haircut or their shoes.
In reality, there were few problems. "We had a good sense of who we were talking to. They joked with each other; they were both flippant and serious. They wanted to convey their personalities, not just to us but to each other." But his researchers do not rely entirely on online discussions. "To be really sure, you'd have to do some back-checking - not via the Internet," Mr Herbert says.Reuse content