Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Quirks and Qualities of Modern Internet Exchange

I recently registered a copy of Die Rückkehr des Königs (The Return of the King) that I had found earlier in the year, deliberately laid in an alcove along a staircase inside a building on campus. This book, a card taped on its first page proclaimed, had not been lost or forgotten; rather, it had been "released into the wild" in conjunction with I happily took the book, a welcome excuse to return to old favorites in learning a new language, and placed it on my shelves for eventual reading and export to the States.

Only months later did I create an account on BookCrossings and openly state who'd found the book and what I intended to do with it. I read a message from the book's previous owner and his account of releasing the book. Presumably, he would eventually read my plans for his book, as well. This vicarious relationship--two strangers brought together by appreciation of a single book--raises questions about this book and a sense of responsibility not often found in bound literature.

Would my benefactor approve of my use of his book? Would its departure from the land where he lived and its language was spoken arouse regret in him that Germans and Paderborn wouldn't benefit from his generosity? I hoped that my message would offer hope of something more than a simple read, that he could enjoy knowing that his charity would improve cultural exchange, offer Americans a look inside another language, and broaden their horizons of what a book might look like inside.

I find myself on this modern Internet of ours, in countless interactions with the familiar and the strange, wondering whether and how I should engage with someone, how I should behave in a relationship spawned online and then carried into the real world, and where and whom to avoid in the interest of saved time and sanity on all sides. With the infinite made accessible at one's keyboard, it really matters where and when one flits on the web. Over the coming month, I'd like to look at a few spaces and tubes that have connected me to people and information in a particularly heart-warming or mind-blowing manner.

I've got my own small clutch of sources and sages to whom I apply myself when in doubt about the world around me. I've found friends in many countries who've joined a community grounded in the free exchange of culture and companionship. I place my trust in the collective wisdom of complete and anonymous strangers to tell me how a particular country works, how protein is digested, and what causes diabetes. Whether I choose to cite them remains another matter.

Please post comments of your own emotional jolts as you found yourself in an unfamiliar setting thanks to online activity that either stayed on the screen or spilled into real life. With so much changing in communication, social networking, and personal identification, it's always worthwhile to leave a few pitons in the rock face as we climb towards tomorrow. For an example of online culture from years past, I heartily recommend a This American Life episode, Tales from the Net, which was originally broadcast in 1997 and now, like so much else, finds itself at home in the cloud of our human experience.

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