When I was growing up and first got to use the internet, one of the biggest rules I was given was that I could not talk to strangers on the internet. Around that time, tales of child abductions, predators, and catfishing had started to gain prominence, so my parents’ concern makes sense. It made sense back then, too, because I wasn’t supposed to talk to real-life strangers, so why should I be able to talk to internet strangers?
The funny thing is, now there are entire platforms for talking to strangers. Randomly-paired video and/or text chat, Twitter, Imgur, Reddit, Facebook… Pretty much everywhere you can go to on the internet, it will have an endless stream of strangers you can talk to. Sometimes, you even wind up making friends. One of my closest friends in my freshman year of college was someone who was a friend of a friend of a friend, that I’d maybe seen in person once. In the entire time we talked and were close friends, we met in person once, when I was back from college for winter break and we wanted to be able to stop making jokes about either one of us being a fat old man in a fake mustache.
Hell, even most video games pair you with strangers these days and all the team-based ones require some degree of communication, even if you only ever use emotes/macros to ask for healing or to show off your character’s mighty muscles. Up until a couple of weeks ago, when I started getting more involved on Twitter, most of my interaction with strangers came from playing Overwatch. I’d queue up for a match by myself or with a friend and we’d get stuck on a team with random strangers. For the most part, communication with them stay in the realm of healing requests and indications that we need to group up.
Sometimes, though, people start using text chat. Sometimes, people even use the team-wide voice chat. While myself and the friend I usually queue up with don’t generally join the team voice chat unless the team asks us to, there have been a few times when we have and it went well. One time, we did so well with two other groups of two that we all teamed up to make a group of six and went on to win another four matches. Another time, one guy spent the whole match whining into the team chat about how no one was playing well or helping him and it created such a thoroughly toxic atmosphere that no one would work together.
Most of the time, it’s just normal chatter. People talk about what they’re going to do, call out enemy positions and maneuvers, we coordinate our movements, and trying to work together for a common goal before moving on and never talking to each other again. I’ve had mostly neutral experiences with team voice chat, but the negative ones stand out so much that I generally try to avoid it if I can.
Text chat has been the opposite. There have been a few negative experiences, including one lately that made the match so negative that people on my team started throwing the match, resulting in an embarrassing overtime loss to a team we should have beaten easily. For the most part, though, people are friendly and at least neutral if not positive. If you play as a part of a group, there’s a high chance of playing with other groups and sticking with them for a while, across several matches. As that happens, people start friendly conversations, congratulate each other on good places, and all report/shout-down the one asshole trying to ruin everyone’s good time. Then you inevitably wind up fighting against a long-time ally and tears are shed on both sides as you ruthlessly exploit your experiences with each other to try to beat each other.
I always kind of marvel at the casual nature of human connection via video games. You can meet someone new, bond over your shared enjoyment of a game, and then part ways without ever expecting to meet or talk again. If you do, that’s great! If not, then you’ve lost nothing. Or have you? It is so easy to connect over the internet, but we’re still so guarded with most of our personal information. Games all use usernames, most social media allows the restriction of personal information so only friends can see it, and most people who know anything about internet/identity safety recommend keeping most personal information completely private.
This attitude (which is still entirely sensible because the people who want to exploit personal information are ruthless and entirely too common) keeps us from connecting with friendly strangers. We don’t even share our names. We keep ourselves hidden behind the masks of our characters and our usernames. We connect with people, make friends, and them go our separate ways. It always makes me kind of sad when it happens, even if I’m not really willing to be the one to try to break the pattern. For the most part, anyway. I use my real name here, and on my Twitter. Those aren’t terribly brave, though, since most people also do that.