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Virtually social

Deborah Orr in the Guardian:

An astonishing number of news outlets have reported that poor Ashleigh Hall (above) “met” her rapist and murderer Peter Chapman on a social networking site. It’s rather like saying that you “met” someone by letter, “met” them on the telephone, or “met” them by carrier pigeon. Had the teenager “met” the serial sex offender only on the internet, then she would not have suffered her terrible fate.

This might seem like a petty semantic point, but as discussion rages about how to make social networking sites more safe, it might be worth looking at the language used to describe virtual encounters […] Electronic contacts are not meetings, and they should not routinely be described as if they are.

One can see the point, but I fear this is a losing usage battle. People do routinely say, for example, that they met on a dating site or a forum, in that their initial communications occurred there; and this is now part of what meeting means, to the extent that people often feel the need to add something extra in order to specify only the old meaning: eg, a face-to-face meeting, or a meet-up. And OED gives for sense 4 of meet (v.) the following:

To come (whether by accident or design) into the company of, or into personal intercourse with; to ‘come across’ (a person) in the intercourse of society or business.

Is there some sense in which to exchange messages on Facebook or the like is not to come into “personal intercourse” with someone? Perhaps, but this would need to be argued rather than asserted.

In the mean time, one might as well complain that a message delivered electronically is not mail; yet the same process that is happening to meet has already irrevocably happened with that word — you now need to say something like snail-mail or physical mail to be sure of being understood to mean actual paper letters.

If we try to abide by Orr’s proscription and avoid saying that people met online, what exactly should we say instead?

  1. 1  democracy_grenade  March 12, 2010, 2:31 pm 

    I had several thoughts about this post, but I’m struggling to make them coherent, and need to go out very shortly. So I’ll limit myself to just one for now:

    Orr says that no-one would refer to “meeting” a person by letter or telephone. But I think there are certain circumstances where one would. For example, if two people came across each other via a newspaper or magazine’s “classifieds” page (if those things still exist), I could see them explaining that that is how they “met”. Notably, this is a social system which most closely mimics a type of interaction that is much more common in new media and old: that is, fora which exist explicitly to bring together people who had previously been strangers, with the expectation that at least some will thence develop rather close relationships.

  2. 2  richard  March 12, 2010, 3:39 pm 

    So I have a semi-serious point and a semi-frivolous one:

    This idea that you can meet people via a machine is a fantasy
    …a bunch of writers in Science and Technology Studies would beg to differ: they’d point out that all our meetings are in some senses mediated, while our relationships with machines tend not to be understood sui generis, but in idioms and metaphors that are already familiar. It seems Orr wants to reserve some essential quality of meeting for face-to-face encounters, claiming that only these encounters are real, and consequently only these are really dangerous. That strikes me as a serious delusion on a practical level; the online world touches the physical in many ways, and is increasingly reaching parity with the physical in the field of social interaction; what you say and do online matters. On a philosophical level it’s a reiteration of a very old argument from religious thought; the idea that the body and its physical environment (as mediating machines) are flawed and limited methods for encountering the deity, that they allow only for a dim and partial perception. That doesn’t invalidate her point; one would receive more information in a face-to-face meeting, which might or might not be useful in assessing whether one’s interlocutor was a rapist and murderer. But if we insist that “meeting” must enable such assessments, we should at least allow that this is, itself, a novel use of the word.

    More generally, I’ve had phone meetings and I’ve conducted co-operative, creative work over email and chat fora. I say if you can get enough rapport to design and solve problems in a medium, then it allows for “meeting,” even if the medium may (usefully?) filter the kinds of information you get about your interlocutor.

    Semi-frivolous point: what an awesome bit of rhetoric she deploys at the end there! “…But some people’s fantasies are very dark indeed” – is that Unspeak, or merely the energetic flinging of mud? She establishes categories of the real and the fantastic (the latter being implicitly suspect or dangerous) and then associates the fantastic with potential violence, rounding the phrase off with “in deed” – a return to the physical act. I think she’s saying that only in the realm of the real might we divine each other’s true intentions, and therefore all mediation is inherently dangerous… which leads me to wonder how we should approach her writing, which after all appears online.

  3. 3  shadowfirebird  March 12, 2010, 4:38 pm 

    Do you meet people on the telephone?

    You certainly have “telephone meetings”. And come to think of it, “videoconference” appears to be in the same category, if a bit more subtle.

    I don’t think it’s the body that does the meeting. It’s the mind. In any situation where you are having roughly-realtime conversation with someone, I think you can be said to have met them.

    Just my 10p.

  4. 4  Chris Nicholson  March 12, 2010, 5:22 pm 

    Orr seems to be fundamentally wrong about this. The kind of communication that happens via, say, Facebook is completely different from what happens in an exchange of letters. Not least, live video streaming and the opportunity freely to exchange photos, videos and sound clips means that one can get to know someone intimately online.

    It’s not the same as meeting in the pub or at a party, but it’s much closer to that than to the body-language-free communication possible on the phone or to the opacity of email. I think Orr is failing to grasp that the meaning of “meet” has acquired an extra strand. This is what happens to language; it changes to accommodate new kinds of experience.

  5. 5  Steve  March 12, 2010, 6:39 pm 

    I’m in agreement with the posters above; there are some people who I’ve come to know really quite well, to the extent of knowing about their families, friends, pastimes, backgrounds, etc, just over the phone. Equally I think of many more people who I’ve met in the flesh, but know nothing of, beyond their appearance. And to repeat what people have said above, surely no two people who met through classified ads (they do still exist!) would actually say ‘we met in a pub/whatever’, where their first physical meeting took place. When people ask my how my girlfriend & I ‘met’, I outline the circumstances of our lives that were generally true at the time (‘we were teachers in South Korea’) rather than a summary of a first literal meeting (‘in a bar’).

  6. 6  Steven  March 12, 2010, 7:06 pm 

    I wonder if simply using the phrase met through (Facebook/the classified ads of What Dogcoat?/an IT helpline/whatever) rather than “met on” or “met in” would assuage such worries.

  7. 7  democracy_grenade  March 12, 2010, 7:07 pm 

    Safely back home now. But:

    The kind of communication that happens via, say, Facebook is completely different from what happens in an exchange of letters.

    basically covers my second my point.

    And my third intention was just to quibble with what Steven said about forums/blogs/networking sites that arrange to “meet-up” (rather than just “meet”). This is often true. But what one also finds (at least on a number of such sites that I have been party to) is the use of “meet” as a noun. This usage seems simultaneously to gesticulate towards the idea that “meeting” can only take place IRL (since presumably all of this non-physical activity then constitutes something other than “meeting”), whilst complicating or destabilizing that idea by presenting “meet” in an unfamiliar form (i.e. as a noun). (Note “unfamiliar” rather than “new”, though: in American English particularly, “meet” is sometimes substituted in for “meeting”. I think.)

  8. 8  Steven  March 12, 2010, 7:12 pm 

    And my third intention was just to quibble with what Steven said about forums/blogs/networking sites that arrange to “meet-up” (rather than just “meet”). This is often true. But what one also finds (at least on a number of such sites that I have been party to) is the use of “meet” as a noun.

    Yes, that’s true; what I meant was more that individuals who meet online might then meet up etc; but an online group can, as you say, arrange a meet (which is also AIUI used in American English for sporting occasions?).

  9. 9  Tom  March 12, 2010, 9:11 pm 

    What an interesting discussion. That Commenter #2, he’s a bit of a clever.

    I can’t help feeling that “a girl was raped and murdered” is not a very appropriate lede for an article about semantic quibbling. After all, this debate has been going on ever since there were bulletin boards (as, lamentably, have cases like the Ashleigh Hall one).

    I like to think I see Orr’s point: the Internet blurs the line between modes of communication and interaction, which is a worry because a blurred definition of reality is the last thing some people need, particularly if they spend a lot of time on the Internet. But to phrase her concerns as a matter of semantic precision (rather than a more general discussion of fantasy versus reality) lends a note of urgency to a discussion that I fear is never going to be resolved as cleanly as she and her ilk would like.

    I guess what I’m saying is thanks for posting, Steven, it’s interesting food for thought.

  10. 10  Ricardo  March 13, 2010, 10:26 am 

    1. People like short words and phrases; “Met online” is shorter “Socially interacted on the internet”

    2. “Met online” makes it clear they didn’t met at school, in the pub etc. etc. There’s no actual problem with comprehension here

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