From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 29, 2003*: Strangers on a Network.

Back when these columns first started, almost seven years ago, I travelled from my home to my studies in Tel Aviv at least a few times a week. During those studies I started working in Tel Aviv and continued working there after their completion. After a couple of years I started to make that trip by car, but for a least a couple of years public transportation was my most trustworthy and reliable means of getting to and from home. That didn't necessarily mean the bus. Instead, primarily on my way home, I rode on public taxis that seated about ten people and followed set routes. Though my schedule wasn't exactly fixed, I tended to return from school and work at rather set hours, and quite frequently I'd meet the same people again and again in the taxis I rode. With a couple of these I made a bit of small talk. With others we at least established short nods of the head as signs of recognition.

Years have passed since I last rode those taxis. I rarely think about any of the people whom I encountered while riding them. Once every few months, however, when I turn from the main road to the road that leads to my home, I pass a woman whom I remember used to ride with me. She's waiting for a bus or a ride that will take her to her home not far from mine. I'm tempted to stop and offer her a ride, and in that way close a circle which started years ago.

Is there anything fundamentally different between encountering people on a bus or a taxi, or encountering them on the internet? Actual or virtual, we're basically dealing with a fleeting encounter in which paths momentarily cross before each person continues on his or her way. The fact that those paths cross in the same place at the same time as, of course, they must doesn't mean that the people whose paths cross have anything in common, or should have anything in common, or have any reason to assume that they should ultimately have a common destiny.

But perhaps it should. Or at least that's the impression that we sometimes get when people speak about the relationships they've built via the internet. Romantic relationships that blossom on the internet have become a staple of our culture. Almost everyone seems to know a couple, or have friends who know a couple (no need to go all the way to six degrees) that met via the internet. And it would seem that all of these couples are more than willing to tell the story of how they met. More often than not the gist of these stories is that the soul mate that someone has found couldn't have been found other than via the internet. Their heroes tell us that finding that "special person" was fate, that it was meant to be (and of course that they wouldn't have believed it if it hadn't happened to them). What they don't tell us is that they were actively looking for that person, hanging around the appropriate sites for finding them for extended periods of time, perhaps even meeting more than a couple of people who just might have become that "special person", until things didn't work out. There may be fate in finding that someone, but finding him or her on a singles site somehow seems significantly less fateful, and significantly more premeditated, than finding him or her in a discussion forum devoted to ancient Roman history.

Lest readers at this point get the impression that I'm seeking out some sort of romantic relationship via the internet, I should make my intentions clear. What interests me is whether a chance internet encounter that starts from one particular common interest continues to blossom into a wider relationship. In other words, I'd like to know whether, after an initial interaction two people who have met (by chance, of course) via the internet choose to continue to meet. There are probably numerous technological frameworks in which to examine this sort of question. To my mind the most logical is peer to peer filing sharing. In P2P, when you realize that someone is downloading music from you (or you from him or her) a certain rapport is almost immediately achieved. If you're passionate about a particular sort of music you immediately feel a connection to someone who starts downloading a favorite piece of music from you, even though you have no external signs which tell you whether this person is a connoisseur or a novice, someone who's found a favorite piece of music of yours by intent or by mistake. If you're passionate about your music chances are good that you're going to try and initiate a conversation with that other person, on the (not so outside) chance that he or she feels the same way. In my own case this means that many a late night writing session has been interrupted by either sending or receiving a message along the lines of "if you like that, maybe you should try this".

Admittedly, most of the time the most common response is no response at all. And of course I have no way of knowing whether that lack of response is because the person who received the message doesn't want to respond, or simply because he or she never saw it. A total lack of response isn't the only way of not getting into a conversation. People to whom I've suggested certain music have occasionally said thank you, and then left things at that. I've also received a few responses of "sorry, I'm busy at the moment" (I've used that one occasionally myself, sometimes when it's true, and sometimes when it's not). One person told me he was a very slow typist and because of that didn't want to get into a conversation, and yet another has apologized for not knowing enough English. And of course with at least a few people with whom I've come into contact I've spent quite a bit of time discussing music (and not only jazz, but some other types as well). Usually these conversations are highly utilitarian - basically suggestions for what else to listen to. But sometimes the conversation drifts to somewhat more personal issues. Often it's hard to explain an interest in music that's close to forty years old without also starting to tell things about oneself, and I've both told and been told interesting stories about those "formative" listening years. With one person this even led to being asked why I live in Israel if it's so dangerous here.

And though I like talking about music, I have to admit that I also like examining cyberspace, and often can't stop myself from being more imposing than someone who simply likes to listen to (and download) a certain sort of music. Thus, if an enjoyable conversation around the music develops, I'll then let the cat out of the bag and ask a couple of somewhat different questions. Though I've receied a few responses, most of the people to whom I present these questions seem not to care, or understand, why I might want to talk to them about anything beyond the music. So it turns out that rather than enriching a correspondence, or enriching a friendship, I've discovered that more often than not my trying to study this pheomenon brings it to an end.

Oh, and of course regardless of whether or not I've actually established friendly contact with the people whom I meet while sharing files, there should be a storybook ending to this column.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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