Thursday, August 25, 2005

Kill me if you can

No, I don't mean that literally... It's the title of this week's watercooler programme - y'know, the one where everyone's going, "did you see xxx on TV last night?!" So, did you see it?! Channel 4 on Tuesday night, and incredible viewing. Check out the channel 4 blurb below if you didn't...

Kill me if you can

So, why is this interesting to the student of the English language? Well, firstly, it's another example in the growing list of legal cases solved through forensic linguistics. The police finally twigged, having ploughed their way through reams and reams of transcripts, that all of the people in this surreal chatroom were actually just fictional projections of the same person, because they all used the unique language form "mybye". It was this one tiny detail that revealed all. All the other features of the fictional characters' language use were sufficiently convincing for the police to have believed they were looking for real people, going as far as arresting a real shop assistant they thought fitted the bill.

It's also really interesting to think about this case in relation to language and technology. Although many of the chatroom conversations had been deleted, the police still had 58,000 lines of text left to work on. Given that the lads were often in the chatroom all night, and that this scenario took place over many months, a gargantuan amount of language was obviously produced. It is hard to imagine that being possible in any other way than with instant messaging software. Had they been on the phone, their parents would have been bankrupted; had they been talking face to face, their parents would have told them to quit yakking and get to bed! And the product of so much language being generated was that it constructed a whole world of words that became more real than the living breathing one beyond the PC screen.

It's very easy to read about this case, and to pass the lads off as a bit odd, a bit vulnerable, etc. But the most interesting comment quoted in the article comes from the lad 'John' who was stabbed. In therapy he described how the conversations he had in this virtual world had given him a stronger sense of emotional intimacy than he'd ever had before. In internet chat there is a gratifying immediacy, the heady freedom to say things you might not ordinarily say, and a sense that language and identity are far less fixed. Which of us hasn't felt that to some extent?... It's all just a question of how far we are prepared to go with that freedom.

(Did I just confess to being an online psycho?...)

U want me 2 kill him?


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