Sex, lies and the Net 'Our First Time' shows how easily we can be trapped in a Web of deception.

July 26, 1998|By Young Chang | Young Chang,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

If you can believe anything you read anymore, let alone online reports about an online scam, here's how the latest Internet hoax began. It was, according to online news service Ziff Davis Net, one of those instantly intimate conversations between strangers unique to online chat rooms.

First, "Diane" said: Oh look, a 40-year-old having a baby on the Net, how beautiful.

Replied "Oscar Wells": Isn't it?

Diane said: So beautiful. The "first step" should be shown. I'd lose my virginity just to prove the point.

Oscar said: I can make that happen.

Diane replied: You pervert.

Oscar was undaunted. Come on, he said. It's the "right thing."

Diane said: OK.

That was a month ago. Two weeks later, Oscar Wells (actually a small-time actor and filmmaker named Ken Tipton), asked about 20 people in an online chat room if they had seen his new "Our First Time" Web site. In less than 12 hours, he says, the rest of the online world had learned about Diane and her boyfriend "Mike" and their supposed plan to consummate their relationship live, on camera, on the Internet.

Since then, the tale of Diane and Mike and Oscar Wells has made headlines, first as a phenomenon, then as a fraud. A few days ago, Diane and Mike bared the truth: They are actually Michelle Parma and Ty Taylor, both struggling actors. Oh, and neither, it seems, is a virgin.

This supposed "first" for the Internet was fishy from the start. The site's come-on - the "teens" were supposedly churchgoing honor students - and its suggestive photographs were two clues. The muddled philosophy about "sexual freedom" it offered as rationale for the event might have been scribbled by an 18-year-old, but also seemed contrived. But once the news about "Our First Time" hit the newspapers and airwaves, it gained almost instant legitimacy.

It drew fire from both politicians and moralistic hackers. Conservative Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in a speech about the Internet School Filtering Bill, said, "We must take immediate steps to prevent the Internet from doing more harm than good by bringing such offensive materials into our nation's schools and libraries." Some hackers reportedly tried to destroy the site.

News coverage made the site an Internet "must-see": the small-time service provider who first put it up saw it inundated by as many as 500,000 to a million hits an hour. (That did not go unnoticed by other Internet entrepreneurs, who paid "Our First Time" the ultimate compliment by trying to rip it off. Many set up commercial sites with pointedly similar Web addresses to peddle their own online sex wares.)

But why was there such breathless response to something so questionable to begin with, something that proved to be just another in an endless stream of urban legends, phony e-mails and money-making hoaxes to be propagated via the Internet?

There was, of course, the subject matter: teen-agers losing their virginity together in front of the whole wired world. But sex of every stripe is everywhere on the Internet already. So why did we fall so hard for such a seemingly obvious deception?

Dr. Fred Berlin, an associate professor specializing in sexual disorders at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, suggests such mania is owed to giving "more weight to the messenger than to the message."

Though it's common knowledge that information disseminated on the Internet is not always reliable, there is something about a computer screen that renders the information it carries credible, Berlin says. He compares it to our automatic acceptance of an X-ray that we are told reveals a broken bone.

"We're very much a technological society," he says. "We tend to put great weight on that which comes to us through technology."

Robert L. Schrag, professor of communications at North Carolina State University, agrees.

"If we think about what makes any communication interaction credible, we come down to three criteria - intimacy, authority, and harmony. ... [The Internet] blends these things." he says.

Paradoxically, the medium's interactive nature also makes information extremely malleable. It's a source, he says, whose authority can be changed into an "interactive conversational medium."

"I can affect that screen," he says. "I can click on it and make it change."

Dirk Smillie, founder and director of the News Research Group, a nonpartisan independent research organization in New York, says the speed at which the Internet spreads information - true or false - is why momentum for even the most dubious claims can build so quickly.

That momentum, he says, "eliminates any possibility to corroborate information.

"It's like somebody who's traveling 90 miles per hour on the highway without a seat belt," he says. "Kind of like an accident waiting to happen."

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