As the Internet continues to spread across the world at an explosive rate, more and more people are using it to confess to complete strangers things they cannot tell anyone they know.
There are public discussion groups for the survivors of sexual abuse, and for rape victims. There are confessions by would-be rapists. There is even a discussion group on paedophilia, started by a young man who thought he might be a paedophile, and sought to clarify this question by talking about it in front of the world.
The Samaritans have now set up an e-mail listening post to which people can send their troubles, since it had become quite common to find clearly suicidal people wandering the Net, looking for help and friendship.
There is no form of grief that cannot be encountered on the Net, from people mourning their divorces to others repelled by their own obesity. But much of the suffering is sexual. Gay teenagers, for example, can find it impossible to talk about their feelings to anyone they know. On the Net they can be sure that people like them, or at least pretending to be like them, are only ever a few keystrokes away.
There are a number of technological ways for would-be confessors to maintain their anonymity while stripping themselves of privacy. Encryption makes it impossible to read private messages, while "anonymous remailers" - special computers - are used to make it impossible to discover who has sent a public message. These methods have been criticised for apparently helping criminals. But they also make possible an extraordinary, searing honesty in people who are not so much criminal as simply ashamed.
This is a recent exchange of messages from a public discussion group for survivors of sexual abuse, between someone who wants to mutilate himself or herself (the gender is concealed in the message) and another member of the group.
First the cry for help: "I'm weak and it's not that I hate my legs, I do, but that is beside the point, I hate myself... I'm feeling weak and lightheaded with the urge to cut, and I have a knife in my car and it's taking everything I've got to not go out there and get it... nobody is here to help me... It's so damn hard, nobody realises what I'm going through and if they did they'd hate me, they'd think I was a freak, which I am..."
Then the response, which started by suggesting that the answer is to draw an almost life-sized outline of a human torso on a piece of paper: "What I then do is look at the outline and imagine that I'm looking at myself. That's not just a picture, it's 'me' and it's absolutely everything I hate about 'me' and everything which is wrong is no longer in me but in that outline/person I'm looking at. I do this until I can 'feel' the difference, as though I am truly looking at the horrid, evil version of myself and all I have to do is destroy it so that I can be good.
"Then I do just that. I rip, slash, cut, puncture, whatever, imagining the pain I must be inflicting on the outline/person and seeing them be destroyed in my mind so that the good in me can live. This can get very intense and graphic, so be warned. And it's obviously not a solution for what makes me want to cut but I've found it does help take the edge off when I feel the need."
Perhaps 50 million people could have read that exchange, yet the participants still behaved as if their corners of the Net were private. This is a paradox which carries through on all computer networks. They seem at once more impersonal and more intimate than any other form of communication - and this is especially true for the misfits and miserable.
Cyberspace has been described simply as "a telephone network with pretensions". No one would dream of picking up the telephone and confessing all to a stranger halfway round the world. Yet this happens all the time on the Internet.
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