The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover

The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover was an influential article by Lindsy Van Gelder that examined how a case of gender-bending identity faking from the early days of online chatrooms impacted on a virtual community.

I’d read it many years ago when it was published in the book, Computerization and Controversy, but have just found a scanned copy on the net as a <a href="
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/kollock/classes/cyberspace/resources/Van%20Gelder%201991%20-%20The%20Strange%20Case%20of%20the%20Electronic%20Lover.pdf”>pdf.

It’s entirely anecdotal but it’s a fascinating read (although has been scanned in sideways, so you’ll have to print it, or rotate it on screen – Acrobat users, you can right click to rotate documents).

What I hadn’t remembered was the identities of the person and the alter-ego:

I soon learned that [Talkin' Lady's] real name was Joan Sue Green, and that she was a New York neuropsychologist in her late twenties, who had been severely disfigured in a car accident that was the fault of a drunken driver. The accident had killed her boyfriend.

Joan had spent a year in hospital being treated for brain damage, which affected both her speech and her ability to walk. Mute, confined to a wheelchair, and frequently suffering from intense back and leg pain, Joan had been at first so embittered about her disabilities that she literally didn’t want to live.

Then her mentor, a former professor at John Hopkins, presented her with a computer, a modem, and a year’s subscription to CompuServe to be used specifically doing what Joan was doing – making friends online…

Over the next two years, she became a monumental on-line presence who served as both a support for other disabled women and as an inspiring stereotype-smasher to the able-bodied. Through her many intense friendships and (in some cases) her on-line romances, she changed the lives of dozens of women.

Thus it was a huge shock early this year when, through a complicated series of events, Joan was revealed as being not disabled at all. More to the point, Joan, in fact, was not a woman. She was really a man we’ll call Alex – a prominent New York psychiatrist in his early fifties who was engaged in a bizarre, all-consuming experiment to see what it felt like to be a female, and to experience the intimacy of female friendship.

I first came across the case in Sherry Turkle’s book on the psychology of online identity, Life on the Screen, where she described the story as already having “near-legendary status” in 1995 cyberculture.

There is now a growing body of scholarly work on the psychology of the internet but several episodes seem to have become part of the mythos of the subject, partly because they were used to illustrate psychological points before rigorous empirical work had been started.

Incidentally, I tried to look up the author, Lindsy Van Gelder, on the net but found few details. However, I did find this article from the 1980s where she defends her counter-culture credentials against the fact she owned an IBM PC! (a 5150 if I’m not mistaken).

pdf of Van Gelder’s ‘The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover’.

4 Comments

  1. Rant93
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    There is another relatively famous case of gender-bending internet lover impersonation involving (peripherally) the author Harlan Ellison. Here is one article on it, there are others and there are also the blog entries of the hoaxee and video of the hoaxer getting confronted by the hoaxee’s supporters. Fascinating and disturbing. Very well worth the read.
    http://www.laweekly.com/news/news/the-life-and-death-of-jesse-james/17427/?page=1

  2. Posted May 20, 2008 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    That url didn’t seem to come through properly in the last message.
    http://tinyurl.com/3cqesu

  3. dinie
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I remember coming across the case of the ‘electronic lover’ in a technology studies class, except our lecturer presented it to us as the “Case of the Cross-Dressing Psychiatrist”.
    We were given this particular text, taken from Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s book ‘The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age’. Here’s the GoogleBooks link: http://tinyurl.com/47fclt

  4. Posted May 21, 2008 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Lindsy Van Gelder wrote that? Last I heard, she was writing for a women’s fashion magazine called “Allure.” But I once knew her through online correspondence (yes, I think it was Compuserve we were all using back then!) and she certainly came through as a very strong feminist… Although now, hearing about this interesting book, one wonders if she is/was a woman, at all… ?
    This whole question of identity is extremely intriguing, and I see you followed up with something about MPD/DID. I am a psychologist who once worked on the hospital wards where all of this fluidity with respect to “personality” and “identity” was, quite frankly, encouraged by overly credulous groups of mental health practitioners. It was all very disturbing, and many patients (nearly all women) and their families were badly hurt by this phenomenon. A book I HIGHLY recommend about all of this is “Rewriting the Soul,” by Ian Hacking.


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