The recent Twitter furore over tweets sent by a teenager to British diver Tom Daley has, rightly, fuelled further questions about how we manage ourselves or expect others to behave online. We seem to now be looking for rules - the Telegraph recently published a piece outlining Debretts netiquette guide. We're starting to civilize the Wild West, we want a sheriff, a common understanding, maybe even a comfortable, well managed saloon bar and, perhaps, a town jail.
'It's only the internet' is a familiar, dismissive cry, as though somehow a written or typed word carries less significance, less real worth, than a spoken or traditionally published word. I'm 43 years old, the internet has exploded in my lifetime, taken up permanent residence in my life, like a house-guest I now couldn't live without. The web blooms with possibility and excitement, offers endless entertainment and distraction; a seemingly endless panoply of opinion and information. Sometimes this hyperactive house-guest can be a little too noisy. The connections it offers are mind-bendingly limitless. There is no 'just the internet.'
So now we're struggling - playing catch-up - to understand what the blurring of these different lines might mean and is it a good thing they've blurred or not? How do we now tell, or decide, what is public and what private? Judge what real and what not real?
In my new novel ^, one character is writing a blog. The blog, which is successful and popular, is built on the premise that rather than confront her husband about his infidelity, she will attempt to find a 'different, new' way through. Within the bubble of her blog, she gets a lot of support for this idea, and a great deal of dissent. The comments section is a hotbed of discussion. For her, willingly deluding herself, the blog is an escape from her actual reality, a way to avoid the painful truth of actual confrontation. She enjoys the attention. Yet, inevitably, it slowly takes her further towards her own reality. She finds that, 'I'm more myself by not being myself'. She finds it difficult to balance these two realities within herself.
This difficult contradiction can exist within us all, it contributes to the nature of delusion, but the internet seems particularly to offer us a confusing tumble of fantasy and reality. On forums such as Mumsnet where I posted for a while, the posters are anonymous and consequently I witnessed a lot of playing, and did a fair bit of it myself.
Anonymity give posters a great deal of freedom - it can feel like a dizzy, freewheeling playground. Yet, over time, real relationships become established too, if the posters wish it so - people take their relationships 'offboard' become friends in real life too. Virtual friendships, even if they remain on-line, become real. People start to care. Real names are exchanged. Advice is freely given, and freely asked for. Posters pool their experiences, share their innermost thoughts and confess things they might find difficult to tell people who weren't strangers to their actual lived lives. As most parents know; playing is crucially important, fantasy has a strong relationship to reality. It isn't 'just' escapism.
I'm guessing that everyone now knows someone who has met a friend or partner off the internet - our social and work lives are increasingly built around social media. With this new foundation we can find greater and more exciting connections to others, and with that, we hope, a better understanding of other people's experiences and thus our own. With those connections, and the playing and fantasy that feels possible because of them, we are also deeply responsible for our and other's realities and for their feelings. The rules of engagement might feel different - nobody is in the same room - but they are no different. The fantasy, the connectedness of Twitter - I can tweet Tom Daley! - means not that we are free to say what we want, but that we are as obliged to be as thoughtful online towards others as we might be in 'real' life.
Do come find me on Twitter where I am, of course, unwaveringly well-mannered and polite. Of course.
Follow Rachel Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@rachelheath