I Never Promised You an Identity: E-love and the End of Intimacy

Sometime in October of ’98 I received an angry email from a woman who was clearly upset. She recounted, in somewhat broken English, long flirtations in chat rooms and promises of more to come, and how my long silence had been troubling to her.

“What are your intentions, Bob?” she asked. “Why can’t you be man enough and simply tell me you are no longer interested?”

Some time later I received another note, this one from a different woman who, it appeared, was also from a foreign country. Attached to the note was a digital photograph of a petite South American woman in a blue dress, both shy and playful, a look on her face saying, “Bob, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

The second note was simpler correspondence thanking me for my kind words and hoping we might meet some day. With time, I received many more of these notes, each with a different kind of sentiment. My ability for playing both the swinger and the gentlemen was seemingly unbound.

At the beginning of last summer, I received my most intimate correspondence. It was a sleepy letter from a woman in Japan, apologizing for our abrupt phone conversation. She cited late nights and a bit of romantic confusion as the cause, but that very morning made sure to write to me so that I would know she still felt deeply for me. She ended the note with a friendly, “Enjoy your trip to Miami, Bob.” Just last week, another email with the subject line “What happened to you?” appeared. It was from a woman with very little knowledge of English who still somehow managed to convey her heartbreak, frustration and sadness over my complete disregard for her feelings. She chided my promises of airline tickets for visits to New Jersey and Florida. Like all the others, she entreated me to be honest, using my name in the body of the note like a mantra: “Bob.”

There’s only one problem with all of this: My name is not Bob.

With every note that came in, I immediately replied, as quickly as possible and with no regard to the e-mails I’d read, saying there was no “Bob” at this e-mail address. Only the Japanese woman wrote back, apologetic, and realizing her own mistake. She explained to me how similar my e-mail address is to Bob’s, and that a simple reversal of letters would result in my getting e-mail intended for him. I suddenly realized the reverse must be true and imagined this guy trying to decipher messages from my friends and relatives.

It is quite amazing the power of this reversal of letters, a simple human error, probably done thousands of times a day all over the world, most of them handled by the auto-spell checker in our word processors. Using an address book can certainly help avoid spelling errors, but it is still easy enough to click on “Mom” and write that note intended for the dominatrix you met in a chat room. E-mail is wrought with certain dangers, the least of which is sending a note intended for one person to another. Recently a friend of mine was dating a woman he was really quite fond of, but in an e-mail to another friend he chose to list her less than attractive features, highlighting these above all else. Later, checking his Sent Messages box, he noticed there was no e-mail to his friend and he had in fact sent the letter to the girl he was courting.

But to be on the other side of this and follow the love exploits of a perfect stranger is nothing if not voyeuristic, but it also enlightens a certain aspect of cyber culture: the chat room meeting and subsequent romance.

For a busy fellow like Bob appears to be, meeting ladies in cyberspace is certainly an enterprising way to be a bachelor nowadays. He is not limited in any way to women at his local gym. The whole world becomes a pick-up club. And by dating women from different countries, he never has to worry about being in a club with one woman only to have another see him from across the room. Global culture? Free trade of information? Utopia-shtopia! This Internet thing is certainly a great way to meet chicks.

There is much postmodern theory about the freedom of cyberspace for sexual exploration, especially when it comes to gender and identity. In its most basic sense, men can pretend to be woman, women can be men, a 30-year-old transsexual can pretend to be an 18-year-old co-ed. Skinny people can be muscular, tall people short. Even a guy named Edgar can pretend to be a guy named HotRocket.

But what this interesting discussion on cybersex seems to miss is that people, men and woman, can pretend to be nice. It is easy, in the confusing cross talk emporium called the chat room, to come across as a swell, caring person. You can say all the right things, show concern for all the current events without body language giving you away. The svelte talker in the nightclub commenting on how sensitive you are doesn’t have to do much except lean on the bar next to you to give him or herself up as jerk. In the chat room, words can flow like body oil. Once you can convince someone to go “private” you’re good to go. Saturday nights alone have turned computers into intimates. And there are people who know exactly how to use this.

Looking over the e-mails intended for Bob, I was able to construct a little day in his life. From what I could discern from the mostly broken English of the women’s e-mails, they met him in an Internet chat room of some sort. It might be one set up specifically to introduce foreign people to others in the states. Don’t Be Alone Services caters specifically to men looking to meet Russian women. It might even be some kind of thing where you post messages to people who fit a description you are interested in meeting. Webmatch, for example, lets you post and search for profiles.

Bob certainly has used multiple ways to meet ladies from all over the world. After their initial meeting online, they exchanged e-mail addresses, and even phone numbers. Then a long-distance romance ensued, with the promise of a meeting. I haven’t been able to tell if Bob and any of these women have actually met. The last note I got seemed to imply there was a plane reservation made, and they were waiting for the money to be sent, but again, the English was such that I could not be sure.

Then there is some more correspondence, some promises of some kind made, and then, inevitably, heartbreak. Clearly there are many notes I do not see, but the ones I have seen all ask the same question, “‘Who are you Bob, really.” For him, the thrill appears to be in the buildup, the fantasy of his nice-guyness that once he has convinced these people he is who he is really not, he tires and moves on.

Write all of this off as the spirit of the Internet cyber-culture, where things don’t need to be what they are as long as you can forge ahead and everyone agrees to the game. But from what I could read from these letters, these women were not constructing false identities in some attempt at virtual thrills. They were using the technology to meet real people.

The Internet fosters fantasy because anonymity is exciting. But we can not construct relationships anonymously. For all our postmodern ideals of cyber-gender identity, what we really have is a bunch of people afraid to be themselves. If you have ever spent real time in a chat room it is easy to get caught up in the experience, and when you can say and be anything you want, why not do just that? But afterwards, what has really been accomplished? It is one thing to create a virtual identity and try to convince others this is who you really are, but then what?

Once Bob had to meet his conquests, he bailed, knowing he was not what his chat room persona had led these woman to believe.

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Peter Bebergal lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has been freelance writing for about two years after receiving a masters degree in theological studies which has yet to play out in his life. He has been writing mostly online, including Ctheory, Salon, TattooJew and Suck.