by Mike Coffey
As I said on “Dome and Domer” the other day, if you want a good look at how crazy situations can get, run a website with a message board on it for a while. You’re simultaneously hit with both the best and the worst the electronic ether can offer. And if the last couple days has done anything for me, it’s reminded me how, when you’re dealing with people online, if you don’t have a basic level of trust, you’ve got nothing.
A lot of folks out there have a hard time understanding how Te’o can put so much stock in a relationship with someone he never met in person. As someone who runs a website like this one, I understand it completely. There are plenty of people associated with the site who I’ve “known” for years, although if they walked up to me in the street, I wouldn’t know them. I have great relationships with a lot of those people, and face time has never been a requirement for it. I worked on various sites with SEE for at least five years before we ever met face-to-face. At least two married couples met on NDNation, so who says “fake” relationships can’t develop?
At the same time, however, there remains a stigma to relationships like these. My wife continually jokes about my “imaginary Internet friends”, even though she’s met a fair number of them. At one of the aforementioned NDN weddings, I was cautioned not to go into too much detail about how the couple originally had met. People who lack experience in online communities are quick to devalue the relationships they spawn. Those well versed in electronic communication need no prompting to understand them, but they remain a minority in society today, and when they try and explain themselves to the more Luddite-founded group, it can be a difficult conversation. So you’ll oftentimes find little white lies wending their way into the narrative to avoid the negative reactions. Not honesty per se, but certainly less of a hassle.
Anonymity is the Internet’s watchword, even on a site like ours that tries to be responsible. NDNation’s boards are populated with tons of folks, all of whom have provided basic identification to us in order to be allowed to post. Our rules are a little more strict than most — we don’t allow free email accounts to register, we manually inspect and approve all registration and change requests, we require people to keep the same handle except in special circumstances, etc. — but we’re far from perfect. I’m sure there are people in there who faked their names and emails in some way. A couple weeks ago, we found out one of our more popular posters had used someone else’s name and email to get in. Long story why, and we got it all corrected, but it goes to show no amount of evaluation is perfect.
Since perfection in such methods is hard to find, a certain level of trust has to be there. For example (and I’ll use his info because he outed himself on the board), Brian Smith has been a member of our site under the handle “Michigan Domer” for more than five years. Last year, he and his wife lost their daughter, Bridget, to cancer. Their grief became national news when it was revealed Manti Te’o had expressed condolences to them. With Te’o's recent troubles, Brian took to NDNation to remind people of the good Manti had done.
I was happy Brian made the post. But given everything happening, it made me nervous. Brian’s been registered for a long time, and the name and location check out. Unless he knew all this was going to happen five years ago to someone with this name, the chances this is someone goofing on us are very very low.
But they’re not zero. I don’t believe I’ve ever met Brian, and I certainly can’t completely and beyond the shadow of a doubt confirm he is who he says he is. I don’t think the post is doing any damage to anyone, but we’re in a post-Te’o universe now, and I’m not sure.
That makes me leery. I’m angry that it does, but it doesn’t make the leery go away.
And now that leery could hang around all the boards for me if I let it, particularly when we’ve had a couple incidents in the past where people used their NDN connections or “fame” to take advantage of others. I don’t truly know who the folks I’ve never met are, but if I’m not willing to exhibit some basic level of trust, the whole thing falls apart. Yes, I might get taken advantage of, and I’m going to do my best to prevent any actual criminal behavior occurring via my website. But I’m not going to bat 1.000, and I’ve decided I’m OK with it. If we don’t trust, we’re nowhere.