Romancing the Net, Mark Broatch

Safe Sex: an e-mail romance
Linda Burgess and Stephen Stratford
Godwit, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86962 01 9 4

There are at least two other e-mail romance novels in circulation, both American: Stephanie Fletcher’s 1996 E-mail: A Love Story and Nan McCarthy’s 1998 Chat: A Cybernovel. If we are looking for a distinguishing factor, then the dual authorship of the slim, spiral-bound Safe Sex is an obvious one, setting aside the local factor and the unknown quality of the other two (one reader on the Amazon.com website rated Fletcher’s the “worst book ever written”).

Although epistolary (perhaps now e-pistolary, as in e-mail for the electronic version) novels have a fine tradition in literature, with a heyday in the 18th century and some continuing popularity in the19th, modern readers would find a novel written in letters highly artificial. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Internet may yet allow it a comeback. Cyberspace adds a technological frisson to the mix, with the immediacy and intimacy of e-mail complementing the form’s reliance on a free outpouring of the heart.

Certainly the New Zealand media pounced on Safe Sex, perhaps because it had numerous angles from which to approach the subject: an editor and an author jointly writing about an editor and an author having an e-mail romance, the gossip and speculation about the worlds of literature and journalism contained within the novel, mentioning real individuals (myself included); the timeliness of a fiction about the physical consummation of an e-mail love affair when similar real-life miracle and horror stories are hitting the headlines; the current allure of technology in general and the Internet in particular.

However, while these and other factors ensured that the book was widely reviewed and gave the authors a profile in the nation’s media, much of the criticism wasn’t entirely positive. It is slender in size and impact, easily read in a few hours. Five-sixths of the book is the exchange of e-mails, only twenty-odd pages being devoted to uninterrupted prose. If you weren’t interested in the wit or content of the e-mails, there wasn’t much in it for you. A few reviewers thought the fiction unconvincing, even dull. But I don’t agree that it is a bad book. To be sure, it will not survive the rigours of serious academic analysis, but it is not intended to. Even if it is slight in conceit and effect, it is fun, witty, light-hearted, and even occasionally insightful. And it is an interesting experiment in form, opening up a wider debate about the nature of communication in the era of the Internet. That is the larger concern of this essay.

It really began in 1969, when the US Defense Department created ARPA, the Advance Research Projects Agency network. This network, the forerunner of today’s Internet proper, was designed to be bomb-proof, to be able to route sensitive military information around broken links. The addition of university networks and eventually commercial operations has led us to the info-glut of today: the explosion of gossip-and-opinion newsgroups, the how-did-we-get-by-before usefulness of e-mail technology, and the sound and fury side of the Internet, the World Wide Web.

Or perhaps it began in 1984, when William Gibson wrote his trail-blazing cyberspace (a term he probably coined) novel Neuromancer, which for the first time took the concepts of the Internet to an audience outside academia, a good decade before that audience would be able to use anything like the technology he imagined. Many have since followed that sci-fi trail, writers like Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson creating an entire new sub-genre, while the nature of the Internet and its approaching ubiquity have changed the rules of personal communication and invented a mother-lode source for both fiction and non-fiction writers alike.

Opinions on the Internet vary almost as much as the opinions actually travelling the Internet. They range from the cynical, such as the Bluffer’s Guides: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach. “Those that can’t teach, write articles about it on the Internet”, to the occasionally Pollyannaish, such as The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet: “For readers, the Internet is an enormous book, written by millions of writers all over the world.” The reality is somewhere in between, of course, perhaps a library and shopping mall surrounded by a flea market, a fun fair – and numerous massage parlours. Its usefulness is entirely reliant on the uses to which it is put.

The fictional psychologist Edward E Gluck in Scottish writer A L Kennedys novella Original Bliss (1998) has an optimistic view of technology and the Internet. He sees the sprawl of the Internet as a conduit for and repository of real, democratic communication, more like the shapeless but meaningful mass of a conversation and less the repository of soulless images and digits:

Computers? They’re things, instruments, nothing to approve or disapprove. I have a problem with the people who use them. The person who uses this one is me, so I like it fine.And it gets me into the Net. I love the Net. It carries proper information, facts with added emotional interference, irrelevances, passions, general human subversiveness. People keep overrunning the machine and so it’s full of Completed Facts and nobody in there has to forget what they are – human. They may forget who they are, but anyone can be lost in thought – thought is a very big place. Every day, I make a point of feeding the Net with new things conventional programming would not like: ethics, nonsense, morality.

This view sees the Internet as a channel through which to emphasise the humanity of humanity, the face behind the unemployment statistics, the hungry child behind the casino’s profit figures; it regards the Internet as almost an organic thing, to be entered, to be fed. This is not unreasonable. The growth of the Internet, in particular the World Wide Web, has been exponential, even organic. Its structure, a series of independent links, each able to function without the rest of the whole, resembles an organism as few other creations of humanity do. And it has enabled a huge number of individuals to contribute to a wider, truly global, community.

But the most powerful impact of the Internet is the one it has had on communication. It has genuinely changed the way we relate to each other. If we put aside the clichés – that e-mail has single-handedly revived the art of letter-writing, for instance – and the extension of technological “buzzwords” such as “interface”, “virtual”, “digital” into everyday speech, we find some truly interesting developments. It is generally acknowledged that the majority of language is extralingual – tone, stress, gesticulation, even eye contact – so e-mail (and newsgroup postings) has had to develop written equivalents. Many people who don’t use e-mail know about emoticons, faces created out of keyboard characters, such as ;-) for winking, which give some indication of tone. (While it is difficult to subtly convey tone using e-mail, it is not impossible. The character of John Armstrong in Safe Sex is recognisably cooler than his opposite, Mary O’Malley. His e-mails are pruned mostly to facts and less devoted to emotions, and far more likely to convey feeling by irony.)

Newcomers to online communication should not feel entirely daunted. So-called Netiquette has a virtual rulebook (pun intended) of do’s and don’ts for “newbies” to be learned in action, such as the custom that capitals indicate shouting, and a gaggle of abbreviations and acronyms – for example, BTW, by the way; <LOL>, laugh out loud; RTFM, read the f- – – ing manual – that enhance the prime virtues of e-mail: its immediacy, brevity and, perhaps, wit. Aficionados of e-mail wit will, I hope, appreciate the useful illustration Safe Sex supplies that e-mail is like a conversation with preparation. E-mailers never have to think “I wish I’d said that”. Impersonal e-mail can be treated like an unsolicited fax – it can be ignored if it has no immediate use – while spamming, the sending out of impersonal advertising material to multiple e-mail addresses and newsgroups, is frowned upon but difficult to stop altogether.

Because e-mail. comes directly to a recipient’s personal computer, unwanted missives seem more invasive than addressed junk mail in their letterbox; the obverse is also true – e-mails from friends, acquaintances and potential friends take on a far more intimate air than sometimes intended: those looking for meaning will read between the lines. Ironically, an e-mail may be dashed off without much thought, simply because the pressure for instant reply is so strong. ‘But if deep perusal gives e-mail the complexion of a personal ad, it can also be seen as the ultimate chain-letter. Jokes proliferate; improbable stories mutate and gain credence. A colleague’s mock letter-column to Auckland’s Mercury Energy was quickly doing the e-mail rounds as a bona fide letter, eventually ending up at that Mecca of tabloid television, the Holmes show. Because e-mails can be CC-ed (carbon copied, a throwback to typewriters) or even BCC-ed, (a blind copy, the recipient doesn’t know who else it has gone to) so effortlessly, the recipient is easily seduced into becoming an active participant in the chain-letter frenzy.

That the parties can control the degree of familiarity means several levels of formality can be skipped if both parties agree. The crossing of this social barrier, from friend to potential lover, is what drives the dramatic tension in Safe Sex. At least one academic is apparently considering using the Stratford-Burgess book to show how the salaciousness of e-mail gossip increases as such relationships develop. This assumed intimacy is also what allows a growing number of individuals to form previously impossible bonds. I know of several (well-sourced) local accounts of married, exceptionally shy or otherwise encumbered individuals who have thrown caution to the wind and gone off with often unlikely partners, sometimes in other countries. In Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (1995), US Internet sceptic Clifford Stoll points out the dangers of this delusion:

The Internet is said to be a great place to meet people. It’s an environment to overcome shyness and find others with similar interests, develop friendships, and perhaps find a mate . . . It’s true. Superficial network interactions don’t carry the same risks as face-to-face conversations do. At the same time, they lack depth, commitment, and ordinary etiquette . . . Electronic communication is an instantaneous and illusory contact that creates a sense of intimacy without the emotional investment that leads to close friendships . . . No doubt the networks are certainly great places to meet men. There are several guys online for every woman. But, like the outlook for women in Alaska, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.

He goes on to note that meeting people in person is far more awkward: “there’s far more to a relationship than can be discovered over the screen”. But as John Armstrong in Safe Sex says:

You read about these e-mail romances. Weird, isn’t it? Maybe not. Perhaps people can be themselves properly at an electronic distance . . . there’s not as much self-censoring, the other person isn’t rolling their eyes with boredom or looking around to catch the eye of someone more interesting.

Stoll points out that this means e-mailers effectively have to recreate their identities online: “You spend your life developing your public appearance: it shows in your handwriting, signature, voice, clothing and handshake. You leave all this behind when you send e-mail.” The positive flip-side to this is, of course, that physical attraction becomes a secondary factor, at least initially.

Stoll is not alone in also bemoaning the deterioration in grammar, spelling and general level of reflection evident in e-mail communication. However, I suspect much of this impression comes from the fact that the work of those who are not good at writing is far more visible, rather than any general fall in standards. Even allowing for the move away from rules-based English teaching worldwide, the reality is that the Internet allows anyone to become a publisher. Whether this means everyone should be a publisher, or allow their online dalliances to be published, is another matter.

Mark Broatch is an Auckland reviewer, and features editor for the technology newsweekly Computerworld.

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