Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Virtual Predators

I've never had a problem meeting in real life the people that I've met or known virtually. I tend to spend a lot of time online -- I have since the advent of affordable dial-up. And despite the dangers, I find that I tend to "trust" personalities of a digital nature.

One of my old bosses, Joy, never understood why I could "make friends" online so easily. Neither did she understand why I would choose to blog. To her, it's dangerous. To her, there's no privacy. I've always written her paranoia up as "Generation Gap."

I find that so many people find that hiding behind a computer screen makes them brave -- and brutally honest. And because I think that I'm generally that way, with or without said computer screen, I tend to respect the people on the other side.

I've been lucky in that the majority of people I've met in person have been exactly as they were online. Or at least close enough. With the exception of a stalker or two, I've managed to make some really good virtual friends. Heck, I even met Yoshi online back in the days before Yahoo! owned Geocities. And because I'm a fighter (or something like that), I have managed to finagle my way out of potentially bad situations.

Over the past half year or so, I've made friends with a sweetheart named Rumi. We met online through http://www.mixi.jp, a Japanese social network site much like MySpace. She contacted me and said she planned to come to Hawaii and wanted me to be her friend. She was traveling alone and wanted to have someone local with whom she could hang out. I had no problems with this.

We met up and I took her around a bit. She wasn't here long, but we got on well enough and she posted all about me in her blogs when she returned to Japan. I was her Hawaii sister.

She recently was back in town, again, traveling by herself. And for whatever reason, we had a hard time catching each other. A lot of missed calls. We managed to get together last night for dinner -- she left this morning. And I found out part of the reason why she'd been so hard to get in touch with.

She, like me, makes friends online. And meets them in person. And stays with said virtual people when she visits Hawaii. Last time, she encountered no problems. This time, the person she stayed with was one of those people that everyone warns you about. One of those virtual people that's nothing like they pretend to be.

As an aside, she'd actually met this person face to face in Japan, when they hung out for a week, but the original meeting was via Internet. From what she knew of the guy, he was nice. Trustworthy. Safe.

She came to Hawaii and aside from stealing her money -- he beat the shit out of her. Punched her. Kicked her. Bit her. And she didn't call the cops because she doesn't speak English. And she didn't call her other friends in Hawaii because she didn't know what to say. And so she stayed half a week -- and then ran away when the guy went out one evening.

Rumi told me all this last night -- as we ate her last dinner in Hawaii for this trip. She showed me some of the cuts and bruises she'd accumulated from the experience. She held back tears and said that she had intended never to return to Hawaii -- it's too scary.

And all I could think was about how I couldn't protect her. How I had no idea that someone was hurting her. How vulnerable she was because she didn't know who she could turn to. And how this is exactly what Joy was talking about.

And I hate to admit it -- but the Internet is a scary place. And I have honestly been lucky that something similar has never happened to me.

Does this mean that I'm going to stop blogging? Of course not. Does this mean that I'm going to stop "making friends" with people online? No.

But does it make me scared that maybe I'm setting myself up to get hurt? Does it make me want to tell all my friends to be careful -- because you never know who you're really chatting with? Does it make me want to Google the bastard who hurt Rumi and find out every detail about the jerk, so that I can ... do ... something?

... Rawr. I'm speechless.

It's been said a million times: The virtual world is full of real life predators. I was just too obtuse to see that it was true.