I am a passive consumer of the news. I skim headlines in my Google Reader but often literally only know as much about a story as is explained in those few words. The articles I actually click through to read tend to be fluffy, rather than hard news: 7 Secrets from Professional Chefs, Cat Makes it Home After Long Journey Through Wilderness, etc. And when a hard news story does catch my attention, I’m usually late, and it’s usually because I’ve been hearing SO much about it that I feel compelled to go read for myself and form an opinion of my own. The Manti Te’o story was one such instance. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click the link in the last sentence and go read the article. I’ll wait.

Back with me? Okay, isn’t that creepy? I was so disturbed and found the story so uncomfortable that I actually wanted to focus on a current event here on the blog, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. So, I asked my friend Kyle, of KyleWrather.com fame, to write a guest post! Kyle is a Masters student in Communication and used the Manti Te’o debacle in discussion for the class he’s TAing. According to his Twitter, his interests include  journalism, media, culture, sports and more, so what better person to have comment on this strange phenomenon of our modern world? Enjoy!

How do you know the people you know? Not how well do you know them, but through what intermediary technologies do you stay in contact with them? We are fortunate to live in a time where social connections can be forged with little or no concern for distance, circumstance and background – but with these innovations we continue to face challenges in cultivating our social lives. Tools allowing friends to make contact after years apart or letting families see each other despite being on opposite sides of the world come with a downside: we forfeit our ability to know them outside of the ways they present themselves.

Consider the recent revelation that Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend of three years who tragically died of leukemia never existed. Overcoming the tragedy of her loss constitutes much of the narrative surrounding his college football team’s success this season. Te’o has claimed he is the victim of a cruel and elaborate hoax and while this is possible (the MTV show “Catfish” is roughly based on this same idea) the idea that someone’s significant other of three years is a fiction hard to swallow.

I’m sure there’s more to the story than Te’o or anyone is letting on, but whether he is a tragic victim or complicit in the deception, it’s important to remember he’s a 21-year-old from Hawai’i who has been thrust int0 one of the biggest spotlights in sports (and that was before the hoax was revealed) and lives under incredible scrutiny and stress. It’s not hard to see how something like this could escalate. Unfortunately, the technology that allowed Te’o to forge a relationship despite his busy and remarkable life also allowed his fictitious relationship to continue.

In 15 years the Internet has changed dramatically and so has the way we understand our relationship with others through it. Roughly 10 years ago, while I was in high school, I (and like many people my age) witnessed an explosion of new tools (blogging, instant messaging and broadband) for communicating with friends.  In those early days my friends and I had only a fleeting grasp on the impact of our Internet experimentation –Livejournal posts and message board updates could last as eternal monuments to early-2000s teen ennui. Largely unsupervised by parents (who had even less of an understanding of how the social Web would work,) we pioneered the uncertain and unexpected wilderness of the Internet as a yet-to-be-defined social space. And like any pioneers this exploration was fraught with danger: impersonation, exploitation, and bullying were rampant in those days; but because the Web was a novelty for us, the stakes were relatively low.

But this reveals the ultimate conundrum of the social web – a space were we can define ourselves however we want is also a space removed from the traditional markers of what defines us. Our Internet selves are carefully combed, curated and molded to portray the selves we want the world to see and this has evolved from the wild-west of carefree (but dangerous) socialization we experienced as teens.

The Internet has revolutionized what it means to socialize. Today we have access to others who share our same interests, ideas and feelings in ways our predecessors never could have imagined. Email, video-chatting, blogs and social sharing mean potential friends, family members and loved-ones are only a few keystrokes away. These interactions happen faster and cheaper every day allowing us to build deeper, more meaningful ties. But with these benefits, we also have no choice but to enter every web interaction, especially those with someone never met in real life (IRL,) with guarded suspicion.

Sadly, Te’o’s experience is not an exclusive product of the social web, but instead a product of the communicative tools necessary for social life. Phone impersonations, in-person impersonations and deceptive letters have been happening since humans lived in caves. I seem to recall some Victorian novel with a plot almost exactly like Te’o’s story (let me know if anyone remembers its name.)

Technology remains a powerful tool in social life, but to enjoy its benefits, we have to be prepared to use it with caution. While it has enabled people to love each other and share their lives over previously insurmountable distances and barriers, opportunities for deception and abuse (as in Te’o’s case) continue. Our struggle remains to adopt and adapt these technologies to cultivate and preserve relationships with each other.

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman