The title of this post is a bit cryptic. IM is the acronym for “Instant Messaging”, something we’ve all probably done, at least a bit. With the apostrophe in place, it is also the contraction for “I Am”. I’m writing today about online communication as I experience it. I’ve had a shift in thinking, recently, and want to share that shift in my favorite place to write—here on the blog!
When I was very, very, young; long ago in a land far away, before there was email; before there were home computers, even, I had a pen-pal. I met her on a cruise ship, of all places. My aunt decided to treat my mother and I to a cruise to Hawaii! She was looking for travel companions, and didn’t like to fly, so a-cruising we went. This was the first time I’d been in Hawaii, and I would remember the place for eleven years until I went there to live for a time.
Anyway, I met Penny; exactly my age. She lived in New Jersey; I, in California. We got along. We ran around the ship together. She was with her aunt, as well—what a coincidence! We didn’t see each other during our stay in Hawaii, but, we discovered we’d be on the same ship together on the way back, too. We decided to become pen-pals, and wrote to each other for a decade. Amazing! I don’t know what’s become of her. She stopped writing to me when she got married, at a very young age. Apparently she’d outgrown our friendship.
A few years later, along came email. I signed on as soon as possible. I got a free account from the local university, and it took a lot of work to log on in those days. You know, dial-up, POP, and other things I still don’t understand. Still, some of my far-flung friends were online, and I could sit in my room, late at night, and catch up with them without writing letters.
There are still some of those relationships I continue primarily through email, including that with my sister, my only sibling. Then, a few years later on, I started to hear about this thing called “Blog”. This was right up my alley…but wait! I have skipped a step. My email account at that point was on America Online. I still have that one, used mostly for personal correspondence and family. AOL had introduced this feature called “IM”, later, “AIM”. I would be online, surfing the web, minding my own business, and suddenly a popup would appear! “Hi”, my friend or relative would say, “Whatcha doin’?” —To use an expression popular at the time, this really freaked me out! Someone knew I was online! They knew what I was doing! They might as well have had secret cameras planted in my room for all it affected my equilibrium!
I liked my friends; I liked (most of) my family, but, soon, I learned how to disable this “IM” thing. It made me uncomfortable. I found it interruptive, and, unlike blogging, it required a real-time instant response from me. This does not paint me at my best. I like to MUSE (thus my blog name) cogitate, regurgitate, ponder, and post. Instant chat? —Not so much.
All well and good. As you can see, I discovered the blogging platform, and enjoy it tremendously. I still use email for personal messages, and I like that I can respond in my own good, thoughtfully considered time. By the way, you will also have guessed by now that I don’t do “texting” either. I use my phone to make occasional calls, when life dictates it is the quickest path to my goal. I don’t like actually talking on the phone much, either!
Then, recently, I joined an online virtual community. There, the primary mode of communication is….INSTANT MESSAGING!!! At first, I was so fascinated with the whole experience, that I figured maybe it was time to go ahead and learn to do this despicable thing. There really is no other way to be in the virtual world. One runs around, and meets people—in my case in classes and discussion groups, mostly—and unless one wants to just be lonely and explore, one must chat. Eeek!
When I decided to move to Hawaii, eleven years after my introduction to that tropical world by my Auntie, I spent the first couple of months all by myself. This was OK with me. I like to scope out new territory before interacting with people. Eventually, I did make friends (through classes I took—do you see a pattern?) and began to do things with them. In the virtual world, I spent the first month largely by myself. When I met a couple of people on an island, I confessed that “you are the first people I’ve talked to!” Probably the wrong thing to say, as they thought I was a bit weird. I had met a couple of avatars, or virtual representations of people, who walked right up to me; must have thought my avatar was attractive, and asked if I had a partner and how old I was. When I explained I “wasn’t there for that” (at least not initially) 🙂 they would run away, very quickly.
After a while, I kind of got used to the “IM” thing. After all, when I was in a class or discussion, how could I discuss if I didn’t type something, in real time? But, what I noticed is that I “made friends” VERY quickly, often based upon the most superficial of details. I guess this is a condition of Facebook, too—you’d have to tell me, as I don’t participate in that platform, either.
One of the things I liked about the virtual world was that I could have chats very late at night, when I’m actually awake and alert, at times I would never telephone a real life friend. During one such chat with a person I had “friended” I found myself on the receiving end of some very unpleasant dialog. The person had thought I had certain values and interests. I’d thought the person had other values. It ended excruciatingly, and, actually, I felt emotionally drained and abused by this person’s contempt. Oh my.
I have never experienced this on the blog. Even when I’ve gotten less than supportive comments, I’ve been able to step away, consider my response, and always look for the good in the commenter. In IM, it all goes by so fast, I don’t have that ability. You might be wondering if I’m able to have face-to-face conversations with real people. Somehow, this is possible and pleasurable for me. I think the difference is that in IM, one doesn’t have physical cues, just words flashing by; fast and furious.
I stepped away from the virtual world for a week or so. It happened that it was also at an extremely busy time in my real life: a concert series ending production; a speaker series ready to go. I didn’t blog during that time, either. I felt some “online burnout”, and it translated to real-life friend-avoidance, too. Now, I’m cautiously approaching the virtual world again. But it’s different; no longer as carefree.
I learned much from this experience. Firstly, to re-evaluate my values; to be sure they are ones with which I’m currently congruent. Secondly, to not get distracted by the dazzle of an online personality if that person’s values are greatly incompatible. (I can learn a lot from people who differ, but not from those who hold my values in contempt.) It really has been a valuable experience, and I believe it has changed me, virtually and really. I’ll be fascinated to see where it all leads.
Do you like to “IM”? Is your cognitive processing faster than mine, so that it feels natural and right to you? If so, perhaps you can give me lessons? 🙂