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  • A Community of Electrons

    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.

    16 Responses to “A Community of Electrons”

    1. Kudos. So happy you wrote this.

    2. Kevin Byrnes says:

      Well thought-out and said, Mike. The electronic realm is really taking an older form of distance relationship and ramping it up exponentially. I’m talking about epistolary relationships (as the English lit types would call it), or “pen pals.” There are examples of these going back hundreds of years, and there are some old plays based on epistolary (letter-writing) deception.

      Beyond that, there are people trying to gain our confidence all the time. It is rarely 100% altruistic, but it is mostly sincere. My personal philosophy is that I owe it to all to be straightforward, but I can’t expect it from every single person in the world. The moral: drive defensively…but don’t stop driving.

    3. Well said Mike. Manti’s only mistake is forgetting, as a national “celebrity”, that his embarrassment of starting an online romance is only worse than not owning up to it once he found it to be a hoax. He had a chance to stop it dead in its tracks and didn’t. I don’t think this is a big deal at all but we all know the 24 hour media machine. It needs to be feed and right now Manti is the food.

      • Disagree that he had a chance to stop it. Up until Dec 6, I believe he was unaware of a problem. When he received the call on Dec 6 from his supposedly dead girlfriend, he had to have been in total shock. What was he to do–immediately call a press conference and say I’m not sure what’s going on but I just found out my dead girlfriend isn’t dead and i dont have any other information. The media would have labeled him a wackjob and had a field day before the game. How unfair to his teammates to have had that circus before their biggest game in decades.

        At that point, I believe all he knew was that something was terribly wrong. He’s traveling around the country, probably finishing up his studies, preparing to leave Notre Dame and….oh yeah..trying to prepare for the national championship game. But somehow some people think in the midst of all that he should have been able to immediately solve this completely bizarre situation and notify the world within some arbitrary timeline. Frankly, I give the kid credit he was able to walk and talk at the same time without being seriously medicated under the circumstances.

        I know the conventional wisdom is that he should have explained himself by now but I would assume there is still some kind of investigation going on on his end. People are not going to just accept his word on this and he is not going to get multiple chances to clear his name.

    4. Eric Johnson says:

      Excellent post Mike…greatly appreciate it and couldn’t agree more…my condolences to you and your family Brian…

    5. James Kennedy says:

      I know that I’m just a random voucher on the internet. But my name is Jim Kennedy, I’m in my final year at NDLS, and I know that the Manti/Bridget Smith story is true. I am friends with Sarah Foley (Brian Smith’s sister in law, and Bridget’s Aunt). It is tragic that this whole thing makes us doubt each other on the internet.

    6. Wait… what? You mean I am ACTUALLY married to akaRon? It wasn’t just imaginary? Oh, crap…

      Seriously, though, we told very few people how we met, specifically for the reasons mentioned. Oh, and I hope you got a piece of the chocolate cake at the wedding!

    7. FWIW, here’s one person who can confirm that Bridget’s dad Brian and ‘Michigan Domer’ are one and the same.

    8. One of your points hit home for me. The first being my own experience with my courtship of my wife more than a decade ago. I was involved in a 9 month online and telephonic relationship with my wife prior to meeting her face to face. Those nine months while being real to me, were initially a source of embarrassment to me when friends asked how we first met. So I can understand and believe in Manti’s position. Not surprisingly without any prompting from me, my wife reaction was to believe Manti when I told her about the Manti hoax and she does not follow or care about ND football the way I do.

    9. Giggity_Giggity says:

      Dear Sir or Madam,

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      B’wana Giggity

    10. John Cochtoastin says:

      Great post Mike. Sums it up perfectly. Best to the Smith family.

    11. so-it-goes says:

      Excellent article, as usual!.

      As I have posted on NDN recently regarding the Te’o scenario a person close to us has recently been involved in a similar fake death. It took quite a few weeks for that person to come to the realization the other person was not real even with pleading by my wife!

      Best to you! Keep up the good work!

    12. Timothy Dearborn says:

      Thanks for writing this Mike.

    13. Anyone who has, or had, a 21 year-old in college knows that anything is possible. I cringe to think how much difficulties my college student could get into if you add fame and publicity. This is just a lonely kid far from home, nothing more. And someone decided to exploit that. I can understand how this could happen to anyone: I am a huge ND fan, just ask my wife the turmoil our house goes through on game day. Yet, I did not go to ND, have only been on campus a couple of times, and to a handful of games. But I really do “love” the Irish, and this relationship is based mostly on TV. WHAT’s the difference? And if I were to believe the Chicago Tribune, I been duped for sure. I don’t think so.