It is very easy to create a whole new person online. An email address, a facebook presence, maybe a blog. A casual glance reveals hosts of Mistletoe Ravenchild, Dancing Butterfly, Merlin the seer, and their many friends. Online, we have space to be the people we want to imagine we are, without the same limitations of reality, especially with a name to hide behind. There are a number of consequences. It can be empowering and liberating, a chance to free a previously crushed inner self. It can also be easy to hide behind the façade and abuse people in way you would never think of doing publically. The internet costumes we don can hide all manner of intentions, for good and ill.
As the people who know me personally can testify, I’ve been through a few names and identities on the way. The changes mark marriages, primarily, and also shifts in my writing identity. My previous incarnation was an erotica author, my current one is doing druidry and dark fantasy fic, and I have no idea what else. But for anyone with too much time on their hands, it’s possible to find out, or figure out who I have been, and where I came from. The names were never about hiding my ‘true’ self, only creating a focus for what I’m doing. I know a lot of people doing similar things, using the internet to smooth the transition from one life stage to another. I believe Native American people have a tradition of changing names as life stages call for it. I think there’s a lot of merit in that. Who we are, changes, and sometimes the name shift helps recognise that process.
I find the ways in which people utilise internet identity fascinating. It can be the perfect stalker tool, masquerading as someone else to keep up with the object of obsession, inventing a life to back up the name in hopes of getting attention. So many online relationships begin with a few carefully chosen lies, and crumble when reality threatens to intrude. It’s as if, the virtualness of the space enables us to imagine that what we do here doesn’t matter in the same way. An online ‘affair’ is not a real affair. Online abuse is not the same as shouting in someone’s face. But the effects are the same. The emotional impact of the worlds we create online can be just as powerful as anything in the physical realms.
My feeling is that no part of life should be assumed to be less inherently real than another, where we are engaging with other beings. Part of the problem with the net is that we are talking through computers. I don’t think computer games are entirely real, and I can spot the lines between fantasy and reality, but the nature of the internet is to blur this. I can put my fantasy here. I can claim to be anyone, anything, and you only have my word for it, and what common sense tells you.
However, I’ve never compartmentalised my life. What I do in ‘unreal’ situations has, for the most part, been what I would do ‘for real’. I find that the easiest way to keep track of things and avoid awkward ethical wrangles. Honour is part of my druidry. If I am dishonourable online, then I am dishonourable, as I see it. The online bit makes no difference. In just the same way that I would not act dishonourably in a pretend game (not that I play much of anything). There is an exception though, and that’s the writing. If I only told stories about well meaning, honourable people, we wouldn’t get much plot. If I subscribed to the belief that what we think is as real as what we do, this would cause me some problems. But, I am a writer first and a druid second, if I’m honest. There’s not much in it, in terms of essentialness to my sense of self, but I cannot function without writing, and therefore I cannot afford to have a philosophy that makes writing a villain as bad as being one. One of my beliefs is that beliefs can be consciously and deliberately chosen for specific reasons.
Who I am online is not who I am in person. But I try to get it as close as possible. Online I can proof and edit what I say, and I don’t have to bother about what my body language looks like. You don’t get my scruffy clothes and broad Gloucestershire accent. So while I am constructing my online persona, you are also constructing me, from what I say and what you know, what you imagine and what you want me to be. And I am doing the same with you. Who we want the other person to be can be as important a part of that, as who we want others to think we are. It’s so easy to find what you are looking for – be that love, an ego boost, proof that the one we hate is indeed truly evil, or some other blend of self service and self delusion. The internet can make it very easy to be dishonest with ourselves, but can also be a powerful space for sharing truth and voicing things that would be too hard in person. Like most tools, it comes down to how we choose to use it, and that has everything to do with who we are, and who we want to be.