Online identity and faint pencil lines

A few days ago, I changed the look and feel of this blog and didn’t explain it. The change had a lot to do with drawing lines between personal and public selves and explaining my motives, I felt, would be counterproductive. I’ve changed my mind since then because this whole business of drawing lines is quite fluid really. One is constantly tripping over them and adjusting them and so on. I also want to talk about this because there’s been some discussion about different aspects of online identity in the blogosphere lately, here and here.

So here’s the thing. I got tired of my own openness. I got tired of feeling known by people I didn’t know. A lot of the people I knew bumped into in the blogosphere had nicknames or were much more careful about what aspect of personality they were projecting into cyberspace. Not only was my blog not anonymous, it was also uncensored for the most part. I had never defined its scope so it served as a repository of odds and ends. Thoughts, musings, memories, anything that came to mind really. Some of it was quite personal, and frequently, emotional.

The equation seemed unbalanced. Like chattering away about everything on earth to people whose faces you can’t see. And yet, this is exactly what stage actors do. And writers. Talk to people whom they can’t know. Offer bits of themselves up for examination, comment, even ridicule to a bunch of strangers. So why was I uncomfortable? Why did it feel like I was talking to clowns or the fat lady in the funhouse mirror?

I think it’s because the blogosphere, unlike the theatre audience or the vast readership is not totally nameless or faceless. Not everyone is a stranger. Not everyone is completely invisible. Bits and pieces of identity float around. A blank face with a strong voice. A name you know doling out restricted revelations. Clever nicknames that seem to say something. Carefully constructed online personae. There is the illusion of knowing people who you don’t know, at all.

Perhaps because of this sense of half-knowledge and false intimacy, the blogosphere is also intrusive in a way that few other spaces are. People not only feel like they know you, they also feel free to comment, attack, malign, ‘out’ and poach your identity.

In this old essay, Norman Holland, a literary critic and theorist spoke of a different sort of blurring to which he attributed the increased openness and aggression.

In short, when communicating on the Internet, we set up a relationship with other people in which the people get less human and the machine gets more human. That is how the three signs of the Internet regression come into play: flaming, flirting, and giving. Our feelings toward the computer as computer become our feelings toward the people to whom we send e-mail or post messages. We flame to the person as though he or she were an insensitive thing, a machine that can’t be hurt. We flirt with the machine as though it were a person and could interact with us, compliantly offering sex. We feel open and giving toward the computer because the computer is open and giving to us.

This confusion of person and machine is what makes the Internet regression so special. The regression starts with a variety of phallic-aggressive fantasies, more men’s than women’s, but women’s, too. Then both men and women have the sense of being lost in a vast, engulfing sea of information, millions of times bigger than the finite human sitting at a computer screen embarking on it. The result is an “oral” loss of boundary between person and machine. The person you are talking to on the Internet is thought of as a machine, and the machine is thought of as a person. Then, at an anal level, if you will, who is living blurs into what is dead. At an oral level, one merges. Time on the Internet–“subjective eternity” Seabrook calls it–is not part of one’s real life, but a dependency or addiction to that great power.

The net result is a lack of inhibition. People express love and aggression to a degree they never would face to face.

We, in India, woke up late to the many charms of Internet communication and as a result are behind on the curve. For example, nothing like the Kathy Sierra incident has happened in the Indian blogosphere. But there are the early signs — aggression in various forms.

Anyway, I was am increasingly uncomfortable about the different kinds of blurring and there is the temptation to yank this page off cyberspace altogether but it’s also an empowering space in many ways. So I decided to impose some sort of control over it, or try to, at any rate.

I opted for a compromise by changing the look and feel, the name, the mood. I kept the posts that talk about the things I like or feel strongly about. I removed the ones about ‘me’. Somebody once asked me, “but aren’t they the same thing?” No. The two do overlap frequently. But no, one is not the other. I am not the books I read, the movies I watch or the events I attend. I am not my visits to remote towns. I am not my time spent in the homes of people whose lives I will never fully understand. I am not even my passion for gender rights. All of these, yes. But not only these.

Why this half measure? Why not go anonymous altogether — again? Well, the ability to create an alternate persona is both privilege and power but I can never manage it successfully. I am not good at keeping secrets plus I love a byline. More seriously, this blog is used to store writings that appear elsewhere — or take off from them — so anonymity is not really an option.

For now, I’ll settle for the false comfort of feeling like I have protected something. Large parts of self, if not my whole identity.

But for those who read, I’ll still come around to say some of the usual fun things. Ha. Stay tuned for the (ir)regular programming.

***

The image is Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Note: I have nothing against anonymous blogs. I respect your right to be anonymous. I reserve the right to feel uncomfortable about my own lack of anonymity in the face of it, however. This is for the idiots who didn’t get the point of this post. There are always a few.

3 Comments

Filed under Media, Personal

3 responses to “Online identity and faint pencil lines

  1. *Hugs* because I understand (as you already know) exactly where you’re coming from. Even though as far as knowing each other goes, we’re about as virtual as it gets (for now, anyway).

  2. We’ve had this conversation over wine and iced tea, and I completely get you. It is a trifle unnerving to realize that people you don’t even know exist could be glimpsing into the inner recesses of your mind. The mere thought leaves you vulnerable, doesn’t it? Which is why my choice to go Friends Only on my page. I believe you have that option on WP too. You can add upto 35 people who can view your page while others can’t. Love your new look, by the way. Very pleasing to the eye. Keep writing, girl… the Net does have positives too. It made us reconnect, remember? :)

  3. Sharanya: Not for long, I hope :).

    OJ: Thanks girl, yep it did. I love the power it has to connect people. Guess that’s why I can never give up on it altogether.

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