Mystery men

Fourteen years ago or so, the New Yorker published a mini-cartoon with the tagline "On the Internet nobody know you're a dog". It is of course just as true today more often than not, and potentially greatly exacerbated in practical terms with the rise of all the chat, Instant Messaging and social networking type sites. Sure, most people are no doubt not too far away from who and what they say they are, but there is still going to be a bunch of people who make up their own new identities for the online world. Fine, if it's harmless japery, very much less so if its not.

Most notorious from the media are "chat rooms"; locations on the Internet where you can go type stuff, send pictures and so forth live. MSN Messenger and the like have that sort of facility, both one-to-one and in a more communal manner. But imagine people acted up this way in real life instead of a chat room. Funny? Weird? Disturbing? Well, watch the below short video scripted by Geoff Haley of American Beauty and Six Feet Under fame and see what you reckon.


And now in true L'Oreal style, time for some science. The Poorhouse likes to think - without any obvious evidence it must be said - that, as Internet-based social networking carries on its upsurge, similar norms to everyday face-to-face interactions will be established, and it will be no more allowable to verbally attack someone online than it is offline. Nonetheless, not wishing to be sexist, but the Poorhouse does at times worry for its beauteous female friends' wellbeing as they splash details of their real life and appearance onto the global communications systems but hopefully it'll never go further than a few stupid and hilarious myspace (aargh) messages.

But according to a study published last year from Meyer and Cukier, of the University of Maryland, offensive messages they might get, by the barrel-load.

They studied interactions via Internet Relay Chat ("IRC") networks. Now this is a bit old-skool technology for any myspace/facebook kiddies who might be here (no, you don't get it through Internet Explorer shock! And there are a distinct lack of "emoticons" last the Poorhouse looked too, thank goodness) but imagine a text-based system that has thousands of channels, where groups of people with common interests, or just an interest in chat, hang out and type messages at each other for no particular reason. By default these are group chat rooms, but you can send each other private messages ("PMs" to the nu-skool) too if you go to slightly more effort.

These guys looked at various sorts of attacks and found (unsurprisingly - but now it's written down it must be true...) that there was a massive gender skew against woman in terms of private messages. They noted that if you put on a "bot" (a computer program that can log onto the network which at first sight you might think was a normal human participant) then it usually would get a few personal messages throughout the day. Now, if it had a male name (for instance "Andy") - and by name this is the same concept as the nickname you can choose for yourself on MSN Messenger et al. - it would get 3.7 messages on average a day that could be classified as malicious, whether they were offensive, threatening, sexually explicit or so forth. If the bot was given a female sounding name ("Cathy") it got a rather astounding 100.0 such messages a day. A bot with a neutral name ("Redwings") got 24.9 messages. A repetition of the experiment on a different network gave similar results, with the figures being 27.5, 163.0 and 65.0 respectively.

And no, women gossips don't "bring it on themselves" as the results appeared to be replicated without any chat actually emanating from these test users. In fact, overall the silent types actually attracted more PMs than those that had been programmed to talk a lot.

Play safe, cyberkidz! Beyond obvious tip for the ladies: sign up to these sort of things with a not-obviously-female name (NB: you might like to remove the half naked pics from your myspace gallery if you take this option so as not to cause confusion).

Reference:
Meyer, R. and Cukier, M. Assessing the Attack Threat due to IRC Channels, Proceedings of the International Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks (DSN'06) - Volume 00, Pages: 467 - 472


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