That has always been a dangerous statement to make. It infers a lot without actually saying anything. That you are lonely and have no friends and have to resort to talking with strangers on the internet. That you are totally fine talking with creepy people who are probably 50-year-old perverts wanting to have internet chat room sex with you. I decided to go on a quest to discover what people were really wanting to talk about online and how much we are willing to divulge to strangers.
Strangely enough, it all went down very differently to how I’d imagined. I found a website where you can nominate to either be a ‘listener’ or a ‘venter’. Each person who went on the site was given a pseudonym that was randomly generated. I nominated to be a listener. I thought it would take a lot of small talk to discover what people were really looking to vent about. Most people dove straight in. Each conversation I had began with the venter beginning with, “Hi” and I’d respond, “Hi. How are you going?”. Instead of the stock answer response we usually give in real life (good, fine, alright, tired), I had real answers.
“Not good.” “Mostly ok.” “I’m lonely.” “I have a problem and I’m looking for some advice.”
It was refreshing to talk so openly and honestly with people, even if I didn’t know the full story.
The first few people I talked to had similar conversation topics. College aged (18–23) white guys speaking openly about their insecurities. To be honest I don’t know for sure that any of them were white but all the conversations I had were very #whiteboyproblems.
There was nothing revolutionary about any of these conversations. They were bland stories. The typical indie movie story where an outsider white guy has no real connections and overthinks everything. My immediate reaction to these early conversations was to hypothesise that people from this demographic don’t have the real authentic conversations that women friends do. Most of these guys would have benefitted from just having one real life person that they could talk to about everything — even the small things (“I blush when girls talk to me”).
But I soon realised that there were more people on this website than the first three young guys I talked to. It wasn’t just college guys who struggled with opening up to their friends. It was most people. These stories were anything but bland.
I talked to a US man struggling with severe medical symptoms that made life almost impossible. He hadn’t seen a doctor despite the debilitating effect it was having on his life because he couldn’t afford the medical bills. This seemed almost absurd to me, given the very different health system here in Australia.
I talked to an 18-year-old girl who worried she was pregnant, and instead of getting a pregnancy test, she wanted an opinion from me (a stranger) to decide if she was pregnant. She told me she had used a condom with her boyfriend three weeks ago but her period was late and was experiencing nausea and a range of other symptoms. She was religious and both her and her boyfriend wanted to wait until marriage but they kept having ‘slips’. She was scared to go out and buy a test.
I talked to a guy who was in his final year of high school. He had just been diagnosed with ADHD, along with a previous diagnosis of depression and anxiety. He felt relieved that there was a medical reason he was struggling with procrastination, despite his high intellectual abilities, but was worried about what it would mean for his future. He didn’t feel he could talk with his parents about his worries as they were focused on his older brother who had made previous suicide attempts. He wanted some advice on how to channel his anger and anxiety.
I spoke with a guy from India in his early twenties who was frustrated that he couldn’t have a relationship until he got married. He lived in a small village and wasn’t allowed to interact with other women. He often wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
I spoke with a European woman (I wasn’t sure where she was from) who was a History teacher to high school students. She had a male best friend whom she had been close with for 15 years. His girlfriend of two years was immensely jealous of their relationship and wouldn’t let them spend much time together. Both women had previously had a conversation about it but it didn’t solve the jealousy issue. It was extremely frustrating for her.
I spoke with a woman who had been separated from her husband for two years. They lived in different countries. She had hoped that they would rekindle their relationship. Her husband emailed her a book to read and asked her to respond with her thoughts. The book was about a man who left his wife to sleep around before returning to married life. She wondered if he was trying to insinuate that he similarly had many sexual relationships with other women during their separation and now wanted to resume their relationship. When she replied after reading the book, he ignored her response and continued to talk about his own career.
I spoke to a person — the only identifier they gave was ‘lonely’. They asked that our conversation remain genderless. We didn’t talk about anything specific. They asked if they could hold me. I was confused at first but realised they wanted some sort of role-play. I found it weird at first. Was this just a gateway for them to have chat-room sex? It became clear it wasn’t. They offered me a soft blanket. Told me I was safe with them. They looked into my beautiful eyes. Told me I was lying on a big comfy bed. They stroked my cheek. It was all G-rated. But I realised quickly how much this person was craving intimacy.
I spoke to a guy who was frustrated that the girl he liked wasn’t responding in kind, even after he had given her gift certificates to theme parks and texted her often. I was a bit creeped out by him. He told me that he couldn’t handle, “hoes or rachets. It’s not me. I only like modest women who have a sense of humor. Call me sensitive, but it makes me happier. I am not the man to find a woman stuck up by nature.” I frankly found the whole conversation repulsive. I tried to inject some feminist ideas (i.e. don’t call women ratchets and hoes), but I don’t think anything I said could change his whole viewpoint on women.
The last person I talked to was a young guy from Australia. He said he was doing ‘alrightish’ but didn’t want to discuss any problems, he just wanted to have a chat with someone. This conversation was different to all the others. He wanted to know about my life, just as much as he wanted to talk to me.
It was striking how different all the people I talked to were. Many of them came from very different cultures, and probably would have held different political views to me. Yet all of them wanted to talk to someone about things they didn’t feel they could discuss with the people in their own lives. It was sad to think that none of them trusted the people close to them with these issues. Sadder still, to think that most people have something they would love to talk about but feel they can’t.
Social media and photo-sharing apps, in particular, are often portrayed as infrastructure that promotes ‘fakeness’ and self-promotion, eliminating the ability for people to talk openly and honestly. I do think this is a phenomenon that is becoming more prevalent. We share the best bits of our lives and hold close to our chests the things that tear us apart inside. Slowly this seeps into our ‘real’ lives. We curate our lives so much so that we are worried everything we say will define us — will live forever in the museum that is our life.
Maybe we need to start answering, ‘How are you’ more honestly.
Today I’m not feeling so good. But that doesn’t mean tomorrow I won’t be.