Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Strangers in the night


A little more than a week ago a cyberfriend turned me on to the new chatrooms at Recon.com (which, like GearFetish, is a social-networking site aimed at fetish-minded gay men). I'd been a Recon member for years (like GF, basic membership is free, though if you pay money you get access to more features), but largely neglected the site for weeks or months at a time.

Until this past week. Now I find myself hanging out in the "Superhero" room there for stretches of the day and night. (FYI, the main feature that distinguishes Recon's approach to chat from GF's is that public rooms are devoted to particular fetishes and interests, including bears & cubs, daddy/boy, hypnosis, and "scallies," whatever that means. One is called "Chastity," which always throws me off because it's the name of one of my female coworkers. You can also look for like-minded men by geographic location and upcoming leather events.) I haven't partaken in the chat scene anywhere much since the heyday of AOL back in the early-to-mid-90s, and I can't say it's changed much: lots of lurkers, not necessarily lots of interesting exchanges with witty and articulate conversationalists, and a whole bunch of time spent alone in a room waiting for someone else to show up and stick around longer than 5 seconds. For a while it seemed like everyone who dropped in was between 19 and 24, a demographic that didn't even appeal to me when I was in it myself; and the bottoms (generally heroes and sidekicks) outnumber the tops (generally villains) by about 4 to 1. On a good day. Still, Recon's Superhero room is a new way to meet new potential roleplay partners and to reconnect with old friends/fiends, and I recommend it, although I have a feeling I'm burning out on it fast. (It triggers the obsessive side of me a little too much--and I hate the needy feeling of sitting alone in public waiting for someone to talk to me, either online or off.)

Thanks to this NPR piece on the new book Consequential Strangers, I now have a new way to think about the men (and occasional women) I meet through online roleplay. As defined by authors Melinda Blau and Karen L. Fingerman, a "consequential stranger" is someone who occupies that gray area between intimate friend and anonymous passerby; you may interact with him or her once or many times (a barber is a perfect example of the latter), exchanging information about each other to one degree or another, and yet your knowledge of each other is typically limited to a very specific field. Blau and Fingerman cite the kinds of people we exchange holiday cards with, but lots of Facebook friends--the kind I last saw in person in high school 30+ years ago--seem like the best contemporary manifestation to me.

Well, and chatroom/roleplay buddies, too. Some of these people I interact with exactly once and it goes nowhere, others develop into something resembling close friends--albeit friends whom I (almost) never meet face to face, who (usually) don't know my "real" name or what I look like when I'm not wearing a mask, and who (generally) know next to nothing about the details of my daily existence. And yet, at the same time, many of them have earned a glimpse into my innermost self; they see a side of me I wouldn't dream of showing to my best friends, let alone family members or coworkers.

It's an intriguing theory to me because it sheds light on the current Age of Oversharing. I'm frequently accused by people in (what I insist on calling) the Daylight World of being overly private, hard to read, or just plain standoffish. Even in the chatroom setting, when I don't break character with a newcomer or I refuse to reveal my real name or hometown, I can rub people the wrong way. And yet you, gentle reader, are privvy to all manner of my fantasies--but then this is blog is pretty much directed at consequential strangers, for much the same reason that the book's authors offer in the radio interview for why women tell their hairdressers things they would never reveal to their husbands or siblings. The "consequences" of what I write here are limited if you don't know a thing about me--though if I trust you enough to tell you my name some day, then the game changes, slightly.

Blau writes:
While those closest to our heart are synonymous with home, consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger. They also enhance and enrich our lives and offer us opportunities for novel experiences and information that is beyond the purview of our inner circles.

You can say that again! Sometimes those "novel experiences" are yoga classes, and sometimes they involve one or the other of us on our knees ready to blow the load of a lifetime.

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