Online Identities: Where Fake is the Real
What if people are doing more than just escaping when they create and inhabit new personalities online?
One of the most difficult and ambivalent aspects of online life is the uncertainty of whether people are anything like the projections they create for themselves on blogs, Facebook profiles or in virtual worlds like Second Life. There is something simultaneously optimistic and disconcerting about the fact that people are able to reinvent themselves on the web, choosing to either imagine better versions of themselves or produce entirely different personas. Inevitably, we are left asking the tricky question: online, how are we to know what someone is really like?
Traditionally, the answer to that question has always been… well, you can’t. After all, even if you were to meet an ‘internet friend’ in person how would you know, for example, that the grizzled biker before you doesn’t actually ‘feel like’ the fairy avatar he chose for himself in Second Life? You probably couldn’t; how might you, to use a slightly trite phrase, ‘see into his soul’? But even in that obvious example, there’s something interesting in the disparity between who people ‘really’ are in their day-to-day lives and who they are online. Why do some people choose identities that are so radically different from their regular ones?
To me the useful thing here is the idea of fantasy and its place in our lives. What would it mean that a petite, skinny Japanese woman might choose a tall, voluptuous blond avatar? Or that a shy, diffident teenager might project a bombastic, arrogant personality online? Or that a man might ‘become’ a woman or vice versa? Perhaps the invention of online identities is not only a delusion or an escape, but is also an expression of some hidden or unconscious desire to be that which one is not. When Second Life avatars have such ‘unrealistic’ proportions, with users choosing ridiculously sized sexual organs or even non-human characteristics, what might they be trying to express through the fantasy of the virtual?
It seems that in all the silliness and dress-up, something quite profound is being said quite deliberately. That someone ‘gets a kick’ out of online gender-bending or sexual experimentation suggests that the virtual sphere is a place to play out those things that one cannot in real life but that exist in oneself nonetheless. There is no purpose in getting bogged down on which is ‘more real’ – it’s the very ‘unrealistic’ manifestations that are important. Online, you can ‘be’ who you can’t in life, can play out the unconscious forces that produce so much of what we do. The fake becomes the real: when we create a cartoon-ish image of ourselves, perhaps we are overemphasising and exaggerating the very things that we wish we could be and do in real life.
[Update]: It occurred to me after I wrote this post that, well, these aren’t entirely my ideas. They came from discussions I’ve had with a friend who I’m sure would prefer to remain anonymous. He’s much smarter than me though, so if we’re lucky he’ll write a comment elucidating or challenging what I’ve said.