The rules of the internet

Rule 30: There Are No Girls On The Internet. It’s funny because it’s not true. It seems like the entire planet is online by now, and the male-female split is broadly equal, which makes cases like Amina‘s all the more perplexing. It’s not like there aren’t any real lesbian bloggers – even if the simultaneous unmasking of Paula Brooks (actually a retired male construction worker from Ohio) makes it seem that way.

For the record: I’m not a lesbian, I’ve never been to Damascus, and I’d never heard of either blog before these headlines. I have, however, come across some fairly bizarre cases of Liars on the Internet.

There was a brief fashion several years ago for people to start forum accounts and pretend to be dying. There would be many sympathetic posts and tears shed, and after a year or two the poster’s “brother” or close friend would log on to say that the brave account-holder had finally lost his battle with cancer, and there would be more weeping and sympathetic posts. Then six months later we’d all find out that the “dead” poster was alive and well and had never had anything more troubling than the sniffles.

Oh, there were men who pretended to be lesbians, and girls who pretended to be lesbians, and boys who pretended to be girls. You could often spot them from the Look At Me! Look At Me! posts with accompanying “flattering” photographs and mentions of their gender in every post. My friends and I would eye-roll and mutter how they’re “not all that” and really quite irritating, until they’d get themselves banned or outed as some trucker guy named Chuck. Some of them really were girls, which was no less embarrassing.

If this behaviour is as old as the internet, it’s because it’s older than the internet.

The very first blog I ran – a Livejournal account – was under my real name, but I’d change the names of the people I wrote about because I didn’t feel that I could be honest if I didn’t. I rather cruelly mocked a colleague who was a compulsive liar in real life, felt rotten about it, and deleted the account soon after. Anonymity is crucial to the internet because of its ubiquity. Anything you write is there, accessible to anyone, indefinitely. It’s why I have a strict policy at my personal forum to delete any posts I think will come back to bite the poster, and respect any delete requests. What you say to a person is easily forgotten; what you write is there forever. It does, of course, help that there are other Princess Stompers on the internet to whom I am wholly unrelated.

Whether I like it or not, anything I write under my own name represents the organisation I work for, so I use a pseudonym for online use. If I lend my online name to any organisation – for example, acting as a volunteer moderator at a gaming forum – that name then ends up linked to that company. I therefore also have to be careful what I say as “Princess Stomper” in case it becomes negatively linked to that organisation. So I have another username that I use if I’m worried about causing harm to that company … and so on, to the extent where I now have five or six different usernames in circulation for different purposes. They’re all me, though. I make no attempt to disguise any aspect of my personality. I just neglect to tell people my name.

Most people understand this and operate by the same rules, and that is why most of the internet is anonymous. It does give rise to another type of person, though, and that’s the one who exploits that anonymity to manipulate other users. Gizmodo reported on a well-duh academic study on why trolls troll which I can tell you without reading the full report is “because they’re dicks and because they can”. What we forget is that though the internet used to be the preserve of nerds, it’s now populated by pretty much everyone, including the type of bastards who push kids’ heads down the toilet in high school.

The online behaviour of critical bloggers (i.e. ones that review) is largely determined by our real-life personalities. Though we are clearly very different, there do seem to be common threads in the ones I’ve met. It’s a fundamental clash between a real desire – need – to be liked and an equal need for truthfulness. We need to understand and be understood. That’s what drives the insatiable curiosity to get right to the root of why whatever art was made and how; and equally to explain that as eloquently as we can muster. Eventually, the quest for understanding leads us to the inescapable conclusion that whoever we’re trying to impress that day neither loves nor hates us; they barely notice we exist. In some critics, that fuels bitterness and cruelty. In others, it leads to a detachment, viewing interview subjects like lab rats rather than feeling human beings. The need to be noticed craves attention; the need for understanding fears it. A vociferous shout from the hidden corner: was the internet made for critical bloggers, or were we made for the internet?

Then there’s Facebook, of course, where everyone gets to be themselves. That’s when you finally “meet” your friends. Stripped of your anonymity, you get to see people as they really are: their habits and hobbies, memories and hopes – and all their strange and/or unsavoury political, religious and social views (repeatedly and contemptuously). That’s if they’re not committing the “sins” of Facebook such as vaguebooking or posting about doing the hoovering. Not many friendships survive such an onslaught, which may be why there are reports that users are drifting away from the site. Or maybe even when we’re finally allowed to be ourselves, we should think before we speak – just as we do in the rest of our lives.

So if you can’t really speak your mind on Facebook, where can you let off steam about the things that piss you off? That’s where blogs come in, and why it’s such a good idea to post anonymously, because then you can say whatever the hell you want to say. Just don’t pretend to be a lesbian freedom fighter from Damascus. People don’t like it when you do that.

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