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The strange case of the electronic lover

Van Gelder, Lindsay. (1990). The strange case of the electronic lover. Talking to Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication. Ed. Gary Gumpert and Sandra L. Fish. Norwood: Ablex, 128-142.

This case study outlines how anonymity over the Internet, previously perceived as an advantage of the medium, shattered the trust of a social network in the mid 1980s when a man adopted the online identity of a disabled woman, unbeknownst to others (mainly women) in the network. The man conversed online with various women in the group, gaining trust and winning affection. At first, contact was merely online conversation, but later, contact was made with several women for online sex and even for a face-to-face meeting, as a supposed blind date, set up by the “woman� known as Joan to meet her friend, Alex, Joan’s actual identity.

Once Alex’s actual identity was uncovered, the group felt varying degrees of betrayal. Although a rather extreme example of online subterfuge, particularly for its time, when the Internet was viewed perhaps more optimistically (or naively), it highlights issues that are still relevant today. Anonymity can be a positive feature of online communication (allowing for otherwise shy persons to take on different, more social roles); yet, it can also be potentially harmful (in cases of fraud, for instance). How is trust gained on the internet? What is considered acceptable behavior and how can it be monitored and/or policed? Should it be? The author of this article describes the Alex/Joan story in detail, but provides little commentary in terms of implications. She closes with comments from a feminist perspective relating to trust, intimacy, and sharing between the sexes, admitting that gender remains a major issue in power and communications. But she offers little, other than to “personally applaud� those who actively dismiss categorizing their gender online.