In the 1990s, I first experienced what it was like to build a relationship with a person online. One of the first such people was though chat rooms and instant chat on America Online. His screen name was something like Considerlillies, or some similar name that was clearly intended to reference the Bible passage where Jesus comforted the people by stating:
See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (NIV Study Bible , Matthew 6:28-30)
His screen name and this passage matched his demeanor, as I came to think about it through these text-based chats. We talked often a bit about Catholic theology, the Saints, the Church Fathers, and especially about some of the devotional writings of Catholic mystics. Even in a chat-based environment, I found myself imagining his appearance and mannerisms. From early in our conversations, I had imagined him to be an elderly man, soft-spoken, slow to speak, and cautious in his movements. Perhaps it was his frequent pauses between chat messages. I pictured him hunting and pecking on the keyboard, reviewing every sentence for misspellings and typos before sending it for me to read.
It wasn’t until the third week that he shared with me that he was a Catholic priest in the Milwaukee area.
“Really! I went to college in the Milwaukee area,” I replied. “I only live a couple of hours away and I visit the Milwaukee area often. Maybe I could visit your parish some Sunday! In which parish do you serve?”
I was excited and, once discovering that he was a priest, I thought nothing of moving the conversation into the physical world. He, however, was “silent.” He never responded to me on that topic, but instead abruptly shifted the conversation to a seemingly different topic.
“Not that it matters much, but I am assuming that you are a woman,” he wrote.
What? A woman? I remember a series of sudden thoughts, none of which I shared with him at the time. The first thought involved a series of questions about whether I should be offended by this. However, mixed with this thought were a series of questions about communication in this new virtual world. Is there something feminine about the way that I write and communicate? Is there even such a thing as feminine and masculine text-based chatting? What was it about my messages that led him to believe that I was a woman? Why did he choose to bring the topic up at this point? Did it have something to do with my suggestion to visit? Does this guy have different motives than to just talk theology? Nowhere in these thoughts did I ever doubt that he was a priest, nor do I doubt it when I recall the experiences at this moment. However, this question about gender did result in a personal mistrust, my experiencing a degree of discomfort with him. I explained that I was indeed a man and the conversation quickly came to an end. Neither he nor I made an attempt to continue the conversation. That was the last time that I “saw” him online, the last time that we conversed.
I forgot about this experience until today when I read my peer reviews for a MOOC that I’m taking. You submit a paper and then a random and anonymous group of classmates review your paper. Interestingly two of the four reviewers referred me to as “she” and “her” in their feedback. The other two did not make any gender references. Once more, it led me to think about gender and writing style, online identity, and the assumptions we make about people we meet in the digital world.
I’m not sure that I have any more insights today then I did in the 1990s, but this topic continues to intrigue me. Perhaps this is enough to drive me into some of the existing literature on the topic. Do you have any suggested readings?