Sunday, March 6, 2011

Münchhausen by Internet - No joke


If you're reading this post, you've almost certainly used the Internet before, even if you just started recently. More likely, you've been doing this "web" thing for some time. Most of the bloggers I follow have been "in the business" for at least five years, some closer to ten. The fact that you read a blog, or keep one, indicates a degree of sociability.You care about people, or people-related issues, and wish to have people care about you, or those subjects that matter the most to you.

You might be dysfunctional -- and I'm not judging.  But you might be.  For some people, the lure of a mass audience tuned in to their personal issues is irresistible. It can be (pardon the cliché) a slippery slope, in which that little bit of attention is a drug of sorts, leading you to put out more "bait," even if it turns out to be phony as a plastic fishing fly.

Jenny Kleeman's recent piece in the Guardian explores a phenomenon that's come to be known as Münchhausen by Internet. It is related to Münchhausen Syndrome, in which a person deliberately inflicts illness or injury on him or herself in order to have attention paid by medical professionals, and Münchhausen Syndrome by Proxy, in which children are made ill, with the perpetrator aiming to win accolades from professionals as a good or caring parent.  Münchhausen by Internet, or MBI for short, is a condition in which an individual creates fictitious personal crises for the purpose of gaining sympathy from other Internet users.

If this sounds far-fetched, I'd invite you to think back to the last time you were affected by a novel, movie, or TV show. Even though you knew the characters were completely fictional, they seemed real and felt authentic. This same phenomenon occurs with online relationships. After a few exchanges, that anonymous two-dimensional individual takes on a voice and an appearance (sometimes completely imaginary, sometimes aided by a photo or avatar). You know there's a real person out there answering to their name, and if it expands to include phone calls, Skype, video or in-person meetings, then you're hooked. It's no longer two-dimensional. When they share their tales of woe, and you respond, you're hooked, for better or for worse. So when the sad circumstances turn out to be gimmicky lies, the sense of betrayal is very real indeed.