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="
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’.