This post is going to be rather more serious than my other ones as I want to talk about the challenges presented by instant messenger formats. Two recent experiences in my professional and personal life have prompted it as my solution for understanding a complex issue is to write about it.
This semester, I am working as an online reference librarian more than an in-person one and the interactions with patrons occur through an instant messaging program. They see me as Ask a Librarian and I see them as a randomly generated number or a screen name if they choose to enter one. A major part of my interaction is to create an conversation and show that there’s a human behind the name, who wants to help them succeed in their research. Recently I had someone try to take advantage of the fact that I am a human by pressing me to give them personal information in the hopes that I would create a non-professional relationship with me. It was done in a creeping manner that made me uncomfortable as mixed in with the boundary pushing questions were valid ones that I tried to answer. It also took advantage of the fact that in a normal exchange, I will discuss what I have researched and my own knowledge if it will help the patron. The instant message system created a false sense of knowing that I diverted by pointing out that I was online in a professional capacity, but the interaction shook me. The main reason it did was it felt like once the other person realized I was a woman, they moved on that more than librarian and even insulted librarians in a bid to get my sympathy. In the end I had to close the conversation in a firm and professional manner, but it reminded me of how the combination of false intimacy and lack of a personal connection makes it easy to hurt someone you can’t see. Comment sections and the harassment of women bloggers shows how this has become a daily part of the internet as pointed out by Mencallmethings on Twitter, warning for harassment and threats.
The second experience was one that occurs from time to time in my roleplaying circle where the majority of out of character conversation happens in instant messages. There’s a main chat room that is open throughout the day and night as players come from a variety of timezones and this allows for a constant conversation. I consider this chat room somewhere between a table in a college dining hall or the break room in an office, people are always moving through, different threads of conversations happen at once and the feel changes a lot depending on who is inside. This chat room is where I’ve created many strong friendships but there are many people who I only speak to in the chat room and consider acquaintances. Outside of the main chatroom, there will be one-on-one sessions and email chains, which deepen friendships. One of the tricky parts of all of this is due to the lack of tone on instant messages, there can be the sense of intimacy on one side but not the other. An example that happens often and happened to me again this week is someone messaging with a link or a quick observation, but without a clear sense of thought to who they’re contacting. In a face-to-face conversation, it’s possible to pick up clues and have a quick laugh over something small and move on. Yet in the world of instant messaging, it’s rude to simply not respond but it can be uncomfortable when it seems as if there’s a presumption of intimacy that doesn’t exist. I find these exchanges confusing as usually they come from someone who I’ve interacted with in chat but not deeply. I try to be a friendly person but at times, another window appearing and saying pay attention to me is tiring. The difficulty is to find ways to set boundaries without destroying acquaintances in the mainly toneless environment of instant messaging.
In both these situations, the main issue is how do you create boundaries in spaces where interaction is fluid and the social cues are different. Online it tends to be a case of choosing who you extend intimacy to and finding the ways to be polite and not rude as you draw a line. Due to my experience of understanding what doesn’t come across well through instant messaging in fandom, I’ve been able to keep the professional line stronger as a reference librarian. For the work interaction, I stated that I was online as a librarian and not in a social capacity and would not continue the dialogue and in time, the person left. I think when talking on an instant messaging platform, Twitter or Facebook is to remember that your intentions don’t come through so you have to be go out of your way to explain what’s behind your words. It makes the internet challenging but also rewarding when true intimacy can be created.