Across the river from my flat is an area of riverbank which is bare in the winter but overgrown with trees and bushes in the summer. In the winter the deciduous trees create a lot of empty space visited by no-one except the occasional peeing man on the way back from the pub or drug dealers selling their wares, and now and then one or two school kids exploring. But when the vegetation is heavy, as it has become in the last few weeks, the proximity of sudden wildness in the centre of the city seems to drive people a little crazy. This week, in the hot weather, I’ve heard them yelling and whooping in there. Although they are only a few metres away, across the sluggish old River Soar, I can’t see them for the trees, but I can hear them very clearly. Yesterday a drunk girl sang extended contralto riffs while her male companions described their toileting, oblivious to the fact that our apartment block is so close. They can certainly see us, even if we can’t see them. As the weeks go by I expect lots of more of this, especially if the weather is hot – perhaps there will even be campers pitching their tent and lighting a campfire next to the old railway wall. This has happened before, although I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often. When I was a kid we were always looking for these kinds of scrap ground to make dens on.
Anyway, this behaviour led me to see a correlation with the way people often behave when they visit virtual places for the first time. Many times I’ve seen sensible people drop their inhibitions the minute they enter a MOO, a chatroom, or more recently Second Life. I haven’t seen it happen so often via voice on applications like Skype – perhaps the voice is a little too real for such behaviour. But it’s clear that newbies often feel shrouded and hidden in the jungle of virtuality, and thus enabled to misbehave in a somewhat exhilerated way. Sherry Turkle has written about this phenomenon quite widely. I’m mentioning it here because I think it works as a nature metaphor – the web as jungle or forest. I’ve written elsewhere about the web as the site of The Tempest but now I’m also thinking that it’s a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream, just like the one that takes place across the river from me every summer.