The One About Privacy Wherein Chestnut Ponders Internet Deception

When I was pregnant with my son I joined a mailing list comprised of moms-to-be, all due within the same month. More than 11 years later some of us are still friends and keep in touch via facebook.

As we got close to our due dates, one of the women delivered much too early and her baby died. It was incredibly sad and frankly it was terrifying for the rest of us. Imagine being big with child and hearing that one of your confidants was suddenly no longer pregnant and had lost her child. It was awful.

Over time the rest of us delivered healthy babies and continued to share our lives. We talked about the sleep deprived days of early motherhood, the coos and urps of our infants. After a year passed some became pregnant again and we all shared in the joys of subsequent pregnancies. The woman who had tragically lost her infant -- lets call her Sarah -- was pregnant again and we were all overjoyed. Some of the pain of her loss would be soothed by the birth of a healthy infant, surely.

One day there was terrible news. Sarah had another miscarriage. What are the odds? How horrible! The poor woman! As some of the (clearly naive) members of the group began to pull together a care package we were contacted by a trusted member of our group who had done some research. Apparently Sarah was a very disturbed woman. She had, in fact, lost a baby late in pregnancy -- years before. Since then she had been trolling the pregnancy boards and faking the death of her "baby" when in fact she wasn't even pregnant. She did this over and over, victimizing various groups of women over a period of years.

I learned a few lessons from this experience. First and foremost there are sad broken people out there. People lie and deceive others and they inflict pain for their own selfish and sick reasons. The internet makes this kind of griefing incredibly easy to do. I also learned I am more trusting than is probably appropriate. I believe the stories people tell me until I am given a reason to disbelieve. This is probably not the smartest or most self-protective way to be when one has an online life, but it is part of who I am. (Griefers and con artists please take note: I will not help you move your father's estate out of Nigeria.)

It doesn't take much to figure out it is my nature to take people as they present themselves in SL. If you say you are a warrior princess when in reality you are a geeky guy in your mama's basement I really don't care. Circumstances outside the bounds of our relationship are not of concern to me. We are all entitled to privacy and if that includes keeping your RL a mystery to your SL friends I respect that choice.

The events of the past few days got me thinking and I recalled my experiences with Sarah. In pondering RL/SL death I have come to believe personal privacy trumps the need for others to know what is "true." I prefer to trust people and chance being burned now and then rather than go through my days fearful, cynical and jaded.

crazy virtual moment


Isle Lunasea said...

Chestnut, I have been thinking so much along those lines myself, but haven't yet been able to put it down in words.

I prefer to also be the person who takes people at face value as well, rather than automatically thinking the worst. It isn't likely the smartest or most emotionally preservative way to be, but it just is the way it is, and I don't regret it either.

Even when doubts are raised, I would rather try to understand, rather than run a campaign to tear them down. Regardless of true or false, real people are hurting either way.

Thank you for a well thought out and well written blog about a difficult situation.

Tho said...

I think you've captured pretty much how I feel about it, too. Better to be too trusting than too cynical, I think.

Mister Crap said...

So, where can I get a warrior princess outfit?

(Not for me. Bruwyn the cat.)


Lizzie Lexington said...

well said my friend

Sue said...

One of your best, Chestnut. Well said indeed.

Raven Haalan said...

Chestnut - you know where I am on this from my plurk. If we become the type of person that sees deceit everywhere, and needs to uncover things just for the sake of knowing them - there comes a point where we lose far more to that voyeuristic anxiety than we gain in self defense.

I do think there are thresholds though. Places my heart and resources can't go without knowing the typist behind the AV.

But - that's pretty close. I can take a lot of people in quite a distance and accept them at face value, no problem :)

chestnut rau said...

Raven - I agree 100%. I have a RL connection to the people I am closest to in SL. That does not mean I have met them in person. But I do have to know a little bit about who I am dealing with before I open my heart.

Luke88 said...

Out of curiosity, did your interactions with Sarah later change?

While I share your notion that everybody has a right to privacy, I also think that there is a line between privacy and deceit. I would feel betrayed to find that someone had been outright lying, and would pretty much want nothing to do with that person afterwards.

Then again, this might be a case of beauty being in the eye of beholder. Way back when, I remember telling someone (that was somewhat new to online) that my RL name was not Luke. She was shocked... "why do you DO that?" she asked. She saw that as deceit while I didn't.

chestnut rau said...

Oh yes. I pretty much stopped talking to her as did the rest of the group. I have no idea whatever happened to her.

There is a huge difference between deceit and keeping things private, of course. I think you are absolutely right when you suggest that our differing definitions of these things is what can cause problems between people.

melissa88 said...


This is not quite to your point, but...

While i would agree that Sarah was being deceitful, I am not 100% convinced from what you've said here that she did this to hurt the other expectant mothers. Isn't it also possible that Sarah had never healed from losing her baby, and still needed to be comforted? Describing a long-ago miscarriage would not be likely to elicit the kind of concern and outpouring of support that perhaps she was still in need of. Maybe when the miscarriage happened, she never got any substantial support or counseling in RL... so she kept reliving this event over and over, trying somehow to get whatever she needed to feel comforted.

Yes, it might be a bit obsessive, and intensive grief counselling would be a more effective route to healing. But like you, I tend to believe in the best from people, and it seems possible that Sarah was so wounded that rather than moving on, she revisited this horrible experience, over and over again. And that her motive was to somehow heal her own pain rather than to hurt the others on her list.

chestnut rau said...

I completely agree. Sarah never intended to hurt the other women. She did what she did to cope with her own pain, which was clearly considerable. At the same time, her actions most certainly did hurt a lot of people.

Luke88 said...

Melissa... I'm impressed with your generosity. While I agree that Sarah could certainly have been trying to handle her own grief, if I'd have been on that list and have felt all sad and emotionally involved with her, and then had learned that it was a lie, I think I could not have helped feeling betrayed.

I think one of the sad by-products of an online life is that you sometimes are suspicious of someone who turns out to be really straight. I guess it's that we have less cues to go by in online...

ahuva18 said...

hmmm. I think that for me there comes a time when I think that it's time for someone to move on and heal and DEAL with the issue. So whereas I do appreciate what Melissa is saying, and I feel sorry for Sarah, quite honestly there comes that moment when I will lose my patience and most of my sympathy. I understand that everyone is different. But at some point, I close down my support service and I say to the person - Deal with it already. Do not look to me for your emotional need. Undoubtedly it is "unfair" of me to make a judgement of what is the "proper time" for someone else, but that is MY emotional failing. At some point - for me - enough is enough.

Emerald Wynn said...

You're such a better person than I am. I am so cynical about Second Life at times, as you can probably tell.

SL is amazing in that it lets us walk in shoes that we've always wanted to try walking in, but the lines get blurred when we get too immersed in it and forget that not all is as it seems. I have to constantly remind myself that I really don't know the people behind the avatars -- I've been fooled by people before. A good female friend of mine recently confessed to me that she's really a man. It shocked the hell out of me and I felt so betrayed, for some reason. We've been friends for so long. The conversations we've shared and fun times we've had have been true in the purest essence -- but the context has always been a lie up until now.

*babbling, sorry*

In Sarah's case, this is an interesting subject, because if a person is going to that much trouble to deceive, she's obviously suffering and needs emotional support in some form. Part of me actually feels sorry for her. But I don't know. I'm with Ahuva -- I kind of save my emotional reserves for the real people in my life. I can only get so close to most of my online friends.

Thanks for giving me something to think about.

P.S. I'm not on Plurk so "the events of the past few days" isn't registering. Did someone fake a death or something????