WEB OF DECEIT; Email Flirtation Offers All the Excitement of an Affair, without Any of the Chaos. but What Happens When It Goes from Virtual to Reality Asks Helen Kirwan-Taylor

Article excerpt

Byline: HELEN KIRWAN-TAYLOR

'This is Erik,' the deep voice said on the other end of the phone.

Within minutes, I was picturing a 6ft 4in Viking with a mane of bright blond hair, but as this was an architect I was interviewing, I imagined him dressed in khakis, a white Comme des Garcons shirt and loafers with no socks. His voice had all the gravel of George Clooney's but his words were poetry (as far as discussing design can be poetry). He was witty and quick. The interview had gone on for two hours and we were still not approaching the end.

The conversation was followed by a series of innocent emails, mostly relating to the story I was writing. But, almost imperceptibly, the emails veered into personal territory and pretty soon we were exchanging emails like volleys in tennis. The original subject was long forgotten, but the emails continued for weeks.

As neither of us had the slightest idea what the other person looked like, it was a blank canvas. As you sit and compose emails to someone you have never met (and likely never will), something happens. A new persona emerges: that (poetic and articulate) person thinks nothing of looking up passages in a book (like she did in college), or reading the papers three times over to discuss the Middle East with authority.

We delved into our home lives, our deepest emotions, and our childhoods. The fact that I was corresponding with a man who was responsible for major buildings and airports that I had passed through made it even more exhilarating. He would ask questions such as: would you take on this (enormous) project in Hong Kong? I fancied myself his muse. And, in muse mode, would change how I dressed. I was 6ft now, with long, brown hair and a few PhDs at least.

The emails were intensely creative; I was a character in a novel of my own making, but it was my reflection in the computer screen at the end of the day, not his. My emails were like oldfashioned diary entries with beginnings, middles, and ends. When not composing nonsense on the state of postmodernism, I would confess to things about myself that I would find hard to admit even to a friend, not because they were secrets necessarily but because they would have been gossip fodder in Notting Hill circles and the beauty of strangers online is that you don't tend to bump into them at local drinks parties.

Eventually the email exchanges died down, but not before I was an addict, checking my emails every 30 seconds and composing my responses in my head late at night. My husband was unaware at first (he is the type who only sends personal emails from home and even then keeps them to a bare 'hi'), but when I told him, he looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and parental concern.

He put the whole thing in a box labelled 'teenager' and muttered something about how much time this sad architect had to write emails when he should be designing skyscrapers. Had the architect shown up in London, though, it would have been another story.

The email exchange seemed like an innocent and entertaining emotional escape at the time, but according to a slew of new research, my naivety was dangerous and increasingly common. …