Posted by: ayounglove | June 25, 2008

Who am I talking to?

maskBy now everyone by now is familiar with the trope of the grizzled old man with the screen name BarbieGirl15. You’ve probably also heard uplifting stories about disabled people who, while paralyzed in real life, can run, jump, and even fly in Second Life. As the trend of virtual reference in libraries and information centers continues to rise (my local library now offers a fabulous chat service called L-Net), most information providers have focused their attention on issues of how to assess and deliver library services via im chat. Although I have located a few articles about the politics of how to interact with patrons of different ages and backgrounds via im, I have not yet found any that address the following question: Who is the the librarian is really talking to on im virtual reference?

Anonymity is an important part of web culture, but recently I became aware of a phenomenon that completely changed how I look at my online interactions with other people. A very young teenage girl shared with me that she and her much older brother share a gaming account together. I asked what her screen-name was and she said, “the same as my brother’s.” Then she clarified that the two of them take turns playing the same character.

Fascinated by the idea that other people interacting with this avatar might at some times be talking with a 13-year old girl and at other times a young man in his 20s, I decided to see if this sharing of a screen-name was just an isolated phenomenon. I shared this story with different people that I know to see if perhaps they do anything similar. It turns out that in my age group (20s), several people admitted to sharing paid accounts to save money (such as a husband and wife sharing an upgraded Flickr account or a paid Livejournal subscription being used by two different people to share benefits), but that the actual sharing of a single avatar or im personality was only done by teens. One teen told me that it is common when she is chatting to have a number of friends over and to have all the teens bumping one another off the keyboard for a turn chatting. They enjoy confusing the person on the other end of the im and also like the friendly competition of seeing who can type the most outrageous statement or get the biggest rise out of the other im name. Occassionally, teens even say that they will have a friend “help” them by typing only occasionally to supplement the main chat if the primary account holder has to go to the bathroom or answer the phone but doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation.

Given this trend, I think it’s important to realize that if we do im reference, not only do we not know for sure if we’re talking to a man or a woman, a child or an adult, a buisinessperson or a homemaker, we also don’t even know if we are talking to a single individual.



  1. I did L-Net for 9 months last year before working two jobs made it difficult to continue. I hadn’t come across group chatters before, so thanks for the heads up!

    Usually I could discern the patron through language cues and research interests. High school students were a bit trickier, because their information needs can overlap college students and middle school students. Yet, oddly, middle schoolers were pretty obvious. Especially when they got snarky.

    And the patron requesting info on anal lubrication was pretty clearly a middle school boy. But I treated his query seriously and found the appropriate information. That threw him off a bit, so he started inquiring about more salacious stuff, to which I responded with more appropriate material (the Internet abounds with the stuff.) Eventually he started devolving into “poopy” speech in an attempt to shock me. Responding with, “Is that a question?” drove him away.

  2. Language cues are probably a good clue about who you might be talking to, although perhaps not always.

    I think your strategy to just take every question at face value is a good one. I suppose one reason teens might be more fluid with sharing online identities and are trying to get a reaction from others spring from the same root — they want to figure out what the limits of who they are and what they can do and say. I’ve several times thought that I kind of envy teens today. I would have loved to have secret identities to hide behind to go out and ask my deepest most embarrassing questions!

  3. […] am I talking to? Posted in June 25th, 2008 by in Uncategorized Who am I talking to? …only done by teens. One teen told me that it is common when she is chatting to have a number […]

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